BOOK REVIEW: Miranda Kaufmann’s Black Tudors: The Untold Story

Black Tudors: The Untold Story: Kaufmann, Miranda:  9781786071842: Books

Miranda Kaufmann’s exploration of African presences in Tudor/Stuart Britain is an evergreen, educational powerhouse

Originally publication: Oneworld Publications, 2017

We all know that 2020 was a seismic year for race relations. The murder of George Floyd by a policeman in the US sent decades-old discussions into fever pitch. In the UK, it was the Brexit vote that triggered a rise in hate-crime and xenophobic sentiment. That’s something that Miranda Kaufmann touches on late-on in Black Tudors: The Untold Story:

‘As debate about immigration becomes ever more vituperative and divisive, it is vital to understand that the British Isles have always been peopled with immigrants’.

And throughout the preceding pages, she expertly exposes and navigates the huge but unsung contribution African immigrants made to British society throughout the late Tudor/early Stuart periods. She focuses on 10 characters who moved through the echelons of English life, whether that be in royal courts, circumnavigating the globe with Sir Francis Drake or weaving silk in Southwark.

She turns her thorough research into fluid prose and often hits on imagery so vivid that you can almost smell the places coming off the pages. The way she writes about prostitution in Westminster, or dairy producing in Gloucestershire, for example, showcase the kind of connectivity you’d expect from classicist fiction.

Miranda Kaufmann recounting the research behind Black Tudors, the book and her reasons for writing it.

And whilst some of the stories – like that of Edward Swarthye, the first black man to whip a white man on British soil – lead us to ‘question whether the development of racial slavery in the English colonies was inevitable’, she’s not afraid to shy away from the injustices faced by many of Swarthye’s counterparts, especially women. She does this in pleasingly acerbic, on-the-nose fashion too, like in the chapter about the Westminster-based Anne Cobbie:

‘Few women voluntarily chose prostitution as a career. Many recounted that they had been tricked into it by ‘fair words and great promises’. Some had received guarantees of marriage that proved as worthless as the men who gave them once the deed was done’.

The overwhelming feeling you might come away from Black Tudors: The Untold Story is one of exasperation that you weren’t taught this previously. Part of that may be to do with the fact that much of the ground-breaking research – in which Kaufmann has been involved since the early 00’s – wasn’t widespread until recently. And while the documentation on many of these figures remains scanty, this book is as much about our education as it is reclaiming their stories.

Its impact since publication in 2017 has been massive. But its message will continue to be important until sections of society are willing to become less ignorant about our collective past, and how much we owe to those from other cultures.

You can purchase Black Tudors: The Untold Story here.

BOOK REVIEW: Peter Robinson’s Poetry & Money: A Speculation

Poetry & Money - Peter Robinson - Oxford University Press

Celebrated poet and academic Peter Robinson casts his eye over the way money has impacted poetry through the centuries in often riveting style.

Poets will tell you that their art is a valuable key to unlocking life’s secrets. They’ll argue that poetry is as essential as anything else when discussing cultural and personal worth. I believe that’s true; but the elephant in the room is what gives our lives material, physical and tangible value. Money has always been at the root of that value, whether poets admit it to themselves or not. And with his new book, Poetry & Money: A Speculation, Peter Robinson removes the cobwebs on that very subject.

Well, some of the cobwebs. At a brisk 233 pages (excluding a bibliography and index), Poetry & Money’s scope is somewhat limited. There are no considerations of foreign language poetry, for instance (something Robinson notes apologetically in his introduction). There’s not much analysis of female poets throughout the centuries either, and pretty well nothing published post-2000. But there’s plenty to sink your teeth into here all the same, and when Robinson is assertive, he’s often bang on the money.

Setting his stall out early, Robinson describes the aim of the book as to ‘explore two very different, but inextricably interrelated, human instruments for the attribution of value to the world’. That exploration includes things like notions of ‘trust’ and multi-faceted ideas of exchange, the constant ways in which poetry, money and life reflect each other, shifting attitudes towards paper money and more. There are studies of ‘begging poems’, the mysterious South Sea Bubble of the early 18th century and poetry’s often misguided idealism.

If all that sounds niche and a bit dry, then probably this book isn’t for you. And it being an academic book, there’s no shallow end here. Poetry & Money assumes that its readership is well-steeped in its subject matter and focus. But if you’re interested in poetry, and its connection with the major thing that dominates all our lives (for good or ill), then there are rich and riveting pickings to be had.

A bust of D. H. Lawrence in Nottingham, close to where he was born. Image credit: Elliott Brown Flickr

For example, there’s an immense dissection of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ‘Sea Dreams’ in ‘For a vast speculation had failed’, as Robinson takes its multitudinous readings, dynamics and Tennyson’s own financial context into his stride. As he hones in on Ezra Pound’s proto-fascism in ‘Going off the gold standard’, it’s hard to imagine how Pound could be more dislikeable, but the analysis is still rewarding. And he’s not afraid to land subtle punches either, for example:

‘It’s not the medievalism that’s the problem: it’s the assurance of a special insight into a global conspiracy’.

His discussion of D. H. Lawrence’s ‘Money-madness’ in ‘Contracts and prophets’ expertly deals with the pitfalls of overly-romanticising the relationship between any individual and money. And the web of influence he weaves when discussing W.H Auden’s ‘Casino’ is pretty spellbinding.

He saves the best for last in ‘Getting value out of money’. There are a few stellar observations here, like his perceptive brilliance when discussing Frank O’Hara’s Adieu for Norman…, or delving into the hypocrisy of poetry ‘prizes’, or discussing relationships that form out of the function of ‘feedback’.

Ultimately, Poetry & Money is preaching to the choir, and doesn’t pretend that it’s any other way. But if you’re genuinely interested in the way money has shaped poetry and several writers’ souls, then this is a must-read.

You can purchase Poetry & Money: A Speculation here.

The Best Books I Read In 2020

Image credit: Vicente Flickr

What a year 2020 has been for the publishing industry. It’s not unique in the hurdles it’s had to face of course. The Coronavirus has put a stopper in plans for growth and expansion in pretty much every sector across the globe, and has made keeping heads above water an arduous task. It doesn’t totally feel like we’re out of the woods either; within two weeks the immediate impact of Brexit will be another problem to vault.

But what’s clear is that the power of literature hasn’t diminished. Book sales have maintained a strong upward trend since the beginning of the year, and that’s been reflected by consensus amongst the general population too. I read 40 books this year, and it’s fair to say that had it not been for lockdown, that wouldn’t have been the case. Similarly, the seismic evolution of the audiobook and eBook formats has grown to achieve an all-time readership high this year.

Aside from any other context, those figures are staggering. But the other game-changing factor this year – the catalyst for increased readership of books by black writers and a continuing shift in the publishing industry itself – was the murder of George Floyd in America and the Black Lives Matter marches and movements which righteously gripped communities across the world. As someone who has spent most of 2020 applying for jobs in the publishing industry, it has been a real pleasure to follow its progress to becoming more inclusive, more diverse and more progressive.

This doesn’t just come from ‘the big 5’, though it’s great to see them being more proactive in encouraging non-white applicants to apply. It also comes from work done on the ground by indie publishers, activists, and the likes of industry publications like The Publishing Post, whose dedication to the BLM cause (and others) has been absolutely tireless. As an editor on the new literary journal Ta Voix, it’s been a mighty honour to have been involved in publishing cross-cultural poetry and creative writing. I feel proud of the fire and zeal my generation is embracing to furthering equality in the publishing sphere.

But now, for the list. There are a couple of things to point out with my selections here. Firstly, you’ll notice that it’s not really a ‘list’. These books aren’t ranked at all. They’re basically presented in the order which I read them this year. Ranking literature from as disparate genres, backgrounds and authors as the 23 books here seems like a tenuous task anyway. But in 2020, I think it’s important that we focus less on giving art numerical credibility, and more on how it actually impacts us as individuals. Most notably, the works by black writers I’ve read this year have certainly encompassed way more than can ever be expressed by ranking them, so to do so seems like a huge disservice.

Secondly – and as you may have gleaned from the title of this post – not all these books were released in 2020. In fact, only 6 of them were. There are myriad reasons as to why that is – the lack of time, the sheer volume of work released in 2020 to name a couple. But ultimately, as many others have pointed out before, it doesn’t matter whether you read 50 books from any given year, or 5. What matters is one’s response to it, and how it impacts their lives. I felt it totally necessary to go back and read books by the likes of Afua Hirsch, Alex S. Vitale and Michelle Alexander rather than ensure I was buying every new work of fiction as it was released. Many of the books here have timeless messages and qualities, and are important if you believe that a massive shift in attitudes and representation needs to happen, in both literature and wider society.

I hope you enjoy the books I’ve selected here, and please do consider buying one of them if that’s the case, either from or the publisher directly. Here’s to a 2021 full of more beautiful prose and reading!

Shadowplay: Behind the Lines and Under Fire by Tim Marshall (Elliott & Thompson LTD., 2019)

Shadowplay: Behind the Lines and Under Fire: The Inside Story of Europe's  Last War eBook: Marshall, Tim: Kindle Store

Probably the best book I’ve ever read about Geopolitics. It provides an insider’s insight into the Serbia-Kosovo war of 1998-99 and exposes all the tragedy, Machiavellian politics and murkiness that went on in the build-up, during and after the war. Moving, unbiased and dryly funny.

Read my full review here.

You can buy Shadowplay: Behind the Lines & Under Fire here.

Rave On: Global Adventures in Electronic Music by Matthew Collin (Profile Books LTD., 2018)

Rave On by Matthew Collin | Waterstones

It was fun to read about Detroit and Berlin again, but the real highlights for me were the histories and evolution of the more off-the-beaten-track scenes. And the semi-defence of Skrillex in the Las Vegas chapter was way more interesting and reasonable than I thought it’d be.

Read my full review here.

You can buy Rave On: Global Adventures in Electronic Dance Music here.

An Elegy For Easterly by Petina Gappah (Faber & Faber, 2009)

An Elegy for Easterly: Gappah, Petina: 9780571246946: Books

Incredible collection of short stories about Petina Gappah’s homeland of Zimbabwe around independence in 1980 and the transitional years. It’s really interesting how they all reference colonialism, its impact and psyche of those living through it in Zimbabwe. The stories are as pleasantly surrealist and bizarre as they are funny and profound.

Read my full review here.

You can buy An Elegy For Easterly here.

Dishonesty is the Second Best Policy by David Mitchell (Guardian Faber Publishing, 2019)

Dishonesty is the Second-Best Policy: And Other Rules to Live By: Mitchell, David: 9781783351961: Books

For the most part, it’s every bit as funny, pedantic and sardonically thoughtful as you’d hope. Akin to other comics like Frankie Boyle, Mitchell writes about politics with a level of insight and nuance that goes way beyond the depth of many of our current MPs.

Read my full review here.

You can buy Dishonesty is the Second Best Policy here.

In Praise of Hatred by Khaled Khalifa (Transworld Publishers LTD., 2012)

In Praise of Hatred: Khalifa, Khaled, Price, Leri:  9780552776134: Books

It might sound like a story you’ve heard several times before; the one about an extremist who realises the error of their ways and repents. But Khalifa’s writing is so rich, so thorough, so utterly nuanced in its subject area, that it’s the everyday happenings of the book which underpin its genius.

Read my full review here.

You can buy In Praise of Hatred here.

Citadel by Martha Sprackland (Liverpool University Press, 2020)

Citadel (Pavilion Poetry): Martha Sprackland: 9781789621020:  Books

Weaving a narrative that combines 16th-century Spanish monarch Juana De Castille and Sprackland’s modern experience of womanhood, the collection ebbs and flows, blurring time and memory together and using them to depict a ravaging relationship with identity, confinement, the sea, men, love and femininity. Youthful UK poetry is in rude health right now, but so far, ‘Citadel’ is the high water mark for 2020.

Read my full review here.

You can buy Citadel here.

Let Me Tell You This by Nadine Aisha Jassat (404 Ink, 2019)

Let Me Tell You This: Nadine Aisha Jassat: 9781912489121: Books

Much of it works as a much-needed educational endeavour; another reason why the collection’s directness seems so necessary. Her beautiful approach to integration in ‘The Old Codgers’ and the demonstrable realisation of adulthood of ‘Inbetween Tales’ both reflect and react to her lived experience. Always coming from a deeply personal place, whether she’s angrily sucker-punching the rib cage of rape culture, or using her relationship with her parents as a signifier of her association with Britishness, she can be distinctly creative and truthful in equal measure.

Read my full review here.

You can buy Let Me Tell You This here.

The End of Policing by Alex S. Vitale (Verso Books, 2018)

The End of Policing: Alex Vitale: 9781784782894: Books

In each chapter, he painstakingly lays out the history and background of the biggest deprivations in modern America, ranging from the disastrous ‘School to Prison Pipeline’, the war on drugs and sex work to gang culture and political policing. His analysis is that, despite the desperate nature of the situation – ‘race relations in the USA are as bad as they have ever been’ – none of it is a lost cause.

Read my full review here.

You can buy The End of Policing here.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colourblindness by Michelle Alexander (The New Press, 2012)

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander | Waterstones

Alexander exposes how mass incarceration – or ‘the new Jim Crow’ – is a tool for social manipulation and oppression, rather than built out of any desire to keep the general populace safe. She relies heftily on stats and anger-inducing, terrifying instances of injustice to prove this, all the while maintaining a strong narrative fluidity that seamlessly entwines the links between the history of the US’ legal structure and the way in which its citizens, both black and white, have been hoodwinked into believing, or at least unconsciously upholding, a racist hierarchy.

Read my full review here.

You can buy The New Jim Crow here.

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams (Orion Publishing Co, 2020)

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams | Waterstones

Whether at work, with the family of her deeply problematic partner or even with men she’s dating, Queenie’s life is roll call of calling people out. And alongside focused female empowerment and affecting mental health portrayals, ‘Queenie’ manifests its discussions of race relations as a call to arms. Everybody needs to challenge any racism they encounter, in any situation. Only then will the futures of people like Queenie (not to mention her 15-year-old cousin Diana) be solidified in the context of wider society, as they obviously should be.

Read my full review here.

You can buy Queenie here.

Mutations: The Many Strange Faces of Hardcore Punk by Sam McPheeters (Rare Bird Books, 2020)

Mutations: Twenty Years Embedded in Hardcore Punk: McPheeters,  Sam, Vail, Tobi: 9781947856981: Books

Now channelling his wit and realism-based imagination into novel writing, McPheeters’ half memoir/half essay collection comes unexpected. At various stages throughout the book, he expresses relief at getting out of the hardcore scene (and performing in general) when he did. But his connection to/regret about many facets of the scene across America (and occasionally the UK) is still as vivid, poignant and engaging as ever.

Read my full review here.

You can buy Mutations here.

Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine (Pan Macmillan, 2020)

Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine | Waterstones

In To All Their Dues we meet Kyle, a Loyalist paramilitary struggling to deal with toxic masculinity and the violence of his past. In Arab States: Mind and Narrative, the academic Ryan Hughes looks to conflicts elsewhere to rationalise the situation that has dominated his life. And in Lady and Dog, the elderly Olga clings on to generational anti-Catholic bias whilst attitudes change around her. These are bleak, often funny stories that show – without telling – the lasting impact of The Troubles (both positive and negative) to this day.

Read my full review here.

You can buy Sweet Home here.

Milkman by Anna Burns (Faber & Faber, 2018)

Milkman: Burns, Anna: 9780571342730: Books

But Burns – through dry, subtly universal stream-of-consciousness writing – expertly exposes the way the lives of ordinary people were entwined with The Troubles, whether they wanted them to be or not. It’s a brilliantly creative yet direct portrayal of the fractures that still, four decades on, need healing.

Read my full review here.

You can buy Milkman here.

I Shimmer Sometimes, Too by Porsha Oliyawola (Button Poetry, 2019)

I Shimmer Sometimes, Too (Button Poetry): Porsha O:  9781943735457: Books

Self-proclaimed ‘hip-hop feminist’ Porsha Olayiwola comes through with a beautiful, profound, hard-going and always pertinent collection about identity as a black queer woman, racism & slavery in modern American society and a brilliant revision of ‘The Hollow Men’.

You can buy I Shimmer Sometimes, Too here.

Hings: Short Stories N That by Chris McQueer (404 Ink, 2019)

Hings: Chris McQueer: 9780995623866: Books

The debut collection by young Glaswegian author Chris McQueer is what you might expect if Irvine Welsh wrote the script for Sky One comedy Brassic. The irreverent, farcical and outrageous exteriors of these stories serve plenty of laughs. But there’s a real sense of realism at their heart; these are stories of everyday, working class Scotland, wrapped in lacerating humour but with a strong sense of pathos.

You can buy Hings here.

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier (Virago Press, 2003)

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (re-read) – She Reads Novels

Du Maurier’s dialogue is pristine and perfect, deceptively simple and captivating – her characters are like the most troubled specimens in a Stephen King story, but with more British urgency. They’re richly drawn, recognisable and un-likeable when they need to be, meaning that any twists or characterisations are completely believable and never seem contrived, even in the novel’s action-packed final third.

Read my full review here.

You can buy Rebecca here.

The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta (Hatchette Children’s Group, 2020)

The Black Flamingo: Atta, Dean, Khullar, Anshika: Books

The book beautifully uses the coming-of-age trope to relate to any black non-binary teen who might be reading, but Atta also makes many aspects of an identity crisis universal to those of us not in those categories. The prose is direct when it needs to be and more coded when it needs to be. Through richly detailed characters and staunch politics he tackles homophobia and racism, ending in triumph of self and with a middle finger aloft to those who deny non-binary people their identity.

Read my full review here.

You can buy The Black Flamingo here.

Mad Bad And Dangerous To Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce by Colm Toibin (Viking, 2018)

Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce: Tóibín, Colm: 9780241354414: Books

At a brisk 173-pages, in hindsight it might have been silly to expect total depth on those things, or hope that I might see a thorough reflection of my own life. But Toibin wields his research into a compact, almost always fascinating and often beautiful analysis of how the masculinity and shortcomings of three troubled men impacted their sons’ attitudes and, in the case of James Joyce, pretty much his entire life’s work. As he writes towards the end: ‘In this world of sons then, fathers become ghosts and shadows and fictions. They live in memories and letters, fulfilling their sons’ needs as artists, standing out of the way’.

Read my full review here.

You can buy Mad, Bad & Dangerous To Know here.

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe (William Collins, 2019)

Say Nothing: A True Story Of Murder and Memory In Northern Ireland: Radden Keefe, Patrick: 9780008159252: Books

Radden Keefe’s book makes no judgements, and yet reveals and explores a huge amount. It focuses on some aspects rather than others – it revolves largely around the McConville story and its protagonists, and barely mentions loyalist terrorism, for example. But its scope and woven narrative is unlike anything I’ve read before in political reporting. To date, it’s the best book on the Troubles I’ve read – and I’ve read a lot.

Read my full review here.

You can buy Say Nothing here.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo (Penguin Books LTD., 2019)

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo | Waterstones

Through the lives of the twelve protagonists, Evaristo examines the spectrum of black womanhood in almost every walk of modern British life. Spanning decades and occasionally centuries, Evaristo hones in on the black, female, queer perspective by way of feminism, the African diaspora, British conservatism, education, privilege, horrifying abuse and more. Whether writing about 21st century London, the Scottish border in the early 1900s or Barbados, Evaristo’s writing is always beautifully evocative, acting subtly as a foundation for the lives of these women, represented more directly via fluid dialogue and socio-political righteousness.

Read my full review here.

You can buy Girl, Woman, Other here.

Ayoade on Ayoade: A Cinematic Odyssey by Richard Ayoade (Faber & Faber, 2015)

Ayoade on Ayoade: A Cinematic Odyssey by Richard Ayoade

People who aren’t familiar with Ayoade’s work or humour might find it pretty impenetrable. It occasionally reaches such absurdly surreal heights that it loses any point or focus, but to be honest, that’s probably the ultimate goal. There are moments that made me cry with laughter, moments that shocked me AND – somewhere in there – real points of poignancy and unpleasant reflection on an industry whose duplicitous mask has slipped in recent years.

Read my full review here.

You can buy Ayoade on Ayoade here.

My Life In Red and White by Arsene Wenger (Orion Publishing Co, 2020)

My Life in Red and White: The Sunday Times Number One Bestselling  Autobiography: Wenger, Arsene, Hahn, Daniel, Reece, Andrea:  9781474618243: Books

With free-flowing honesty, self-deprecating humour and still exuberant passion, he charts the stages of his professional and (less so) personal life in a smart, engrossing way that operates on a see-saw; on the one hand he admits to being slightly cold and selfish, and on the other methodically charming & occasionally poetic.

Read my full review here.

You can buy My Life in Red and White here.

Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging by Afua Hirsch (Vintage, 2018)

Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging: Hirsch, Afua:  9781784705039: Books

She expertly exposes prime examples of prejudice where previously I never would have though to look for them. This is most pertinently done in Chapter 3, Bodies, where she deftly unpicks how swingers parties perpetuate racist body stereotypes. There’s also a plain-as-day description of why cultural appropriation is so misguided; black women will never feel comfortable in a society where the white male gaze can tell them they’re ugly, only to fawn over cornrows when adopted by white female models.

Read my full review here.

You can buy Brit(ish) here.

World Book History #9: Maps Of Desire

Love and compassion bring people together. That sounds obvious, but the current state of world affairs suggests otherwise. Now and throughout history, those things are bypassed in the name of individualistic interest.

Manuel Forcano, one of Catalan’s leading love poets, primarily focuses on romantic love. That’s true of his 2019 collection Maps of Desire (Arc Publications) too.

But he also explores how romanticism can be extended to societal love and community cohesion. As the book’s translator Anna Crowe says:

‘I believe Maps of Desire succeeds in suggesting both the physical and psychological reaching-out towards other parts of the world that characterises the poems within its pages’.

Forcano centres his sense of motion around travel in the Middle East. Crucially, he both celebrates and breaks down the differences by tying communities together via love; we all feel it, we all mourn it when it’s over, and we all need it if society is going to function properly.

So how do the poems offer insight into love’s necessity in a societal context? Here are three interesting ways…

The History of Love and Landscapes

Much of the emphasis in Maps of Desire is on how love responds to landscapes. Or indeed, how landscapes reflect or influence love.

‘The Baghdad Train’, for example, is rich in the history and geographical prowess of the Middle East and, while capturing a contemporary moment, shows how those connections stretch back centuries.

But he also uses history to explore how the end of love can unite cultures:

‘People search among the stones
for pieces of those mirrors where joy
remained engraved. Even now
we dream the pleasure of others.’

Every society around the world has a distinct culture, but feelings are universal. When societies aren’t functioning peacefully, they often look to those who are for guidance.

Foreign aid is one thing, but it needs to come from a true place of love to actually heal divisions.

Baghdad, 2018; the muse for Forcano’s epic ‘The Baghdad Train’.

Identity, War and Peace

Identity and deepening diversions due to it reflect that lack of love.

In ‘The Huge River’, Forcano hones his practice of taking the personal and making it universal:

‘But often love means trying to hold water
in the fingers of an open hand’.

Those fears and perceptible doubts are felt just as keenly by communities healing from conflict as they are by individuals. Whilst those feelings are deep-rooted, by recognising that issue we can start to make a difference.

And Forcano does offer hope for those affected by contemporary conflict. In ‘Beirut’, he combines the sentimental value of memory with nationalistic symbolism to great effect:

‘…And memory,
at first so sharp in the mind
then later leaching colour
like a flag too long in the wind.’

By pointing to decaying authoritarian power, Forcano mirrors the drive to stop the current stream of nationalist uprisings.

People in oppressed communities know they aren’t that different from us. There needs to be further recognition of that from the Western world.

‘Poetry, for me, is like an oasis in a desert of words’. Manuel Forcano on his influences and translation in poetry.


Organised religion’s relationship with love is a complex one.

With so many factions in the leading faiths having different interpretations, it’s pretty much impossible to pinpoint a unifying definition of love.

Hailing from Catholic Spain, Forcano reflects religion in a societal sense both in terms of community and via the homoerotic tones in his verse. In ‘The Baghdad Train’, he chimes into the idea that (in theory) forms the origin of all religious love:

‘God is beautiful and that is why he delights in beauty,’
someone recited from the Qu’ran’.

But he mines another inclusive angle on ‘Egyptian Mysteries’. After referencing discussions around religion and love, sex and ‘sin’, he alludes to how gay desire is STILL halted by religion within many societies. When he rounds off the poem by saying:

‘I don’t know which I should thank: whether philosophy
or religion’

he shows doubt, before deciding that he looks to religion for guidance in love in too much.

Mainstream religion has a long way to go before being a totally safe space for gay people, but Forcano owns and embraces his sexuality all the same. In some societies that’s currently not possible, but increasing awareness is a kick-starter for a more equal world.


Love – in all its forms – is something everybody experiences.

Identity, religion and history change love’s meaning, and politics struggles to deal with those changes.

It might seem facile to turn to love poetry as a demarcation of unity. But poetry has always been about deeper connectivity, and Manuel Forcano’s work is proof of that in a context which effects every society.

Find out more about how Forcano uses love to reflect society by grabbing a copy of Maps of Desire today.

World Book History #8: Let Me Tell You This

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is let-me-tell-you-this.jpg

In 2020, racism is still a very global problem. Events in the US over the last two weeks have brought about awareness on the biggest scale that many of us can remember. But it’s far from just an American problem.

Here in the UK and wider Europe, the attitude that ‘our society can’t ever be as bad as America’s’ is both widespread and deeply problematic.

And Nadine Aisha Jassat is all too aware of racial divisions in her native Scotland. As a woman of colour, her perspective on race, heritage and integration in the UK is profound and affecting. In her debut poetry collection Let Me Tell You This, she lays out that perspective in direct style that’s brutal, uncomfortable, wise and truthful in equal measure.

It’s a book that – along with those highlighted by this petition last week – could do wonders on the UK educational syllabus. It’s full to the brim with crucial material, but there are three poems in particular which confront that very British strain of racism head-on.

And they are…

Paki Hands

As white people, it’s vital that we start checking our privilege. Early on, Jassat confronts that issue in ‘Paki Hands’. The poem shows just how normalised racist language has become in British dialect, and is pertinent regarding current events in the USA;

I could ask her what she means, but then I’d be told I’m making a scene. But if I stay quiet – gaze lowered to pale-dark hands, feet and knees – what will the silence do to me?

Here Jassat highlights another crucial way in which white people have to become able and proud allies to people of colour. If we’re not checking our friends – calling them out on the use of racist or generally problematic language – then we’re not helping.

So entrenched are offensive ideas about ‘foreignness’ that people are often shouted down for trying to be the difference. But the fight for race equality has never been quick or easy to resolve.

An ITV news report on racism in the UK, dating from 2016. Have thing got any better for BAME people?

Built to Last

A post-colonial mindset still has a strong grip on many Britons. This gets even murkier when nationalist groups, politicians and activists begin re-branding and reinventing the truth about entire sections of society to adhere to some notion of ‘Britishness’. In ‘Built to Last’, Jassat writes:

I’m starting to learn your ways, through your attitude to names. Stories untold, makers’ hands forgotten, once the item is marked ‘sold’ (or ‘gifted’, never stole – )’

At some level, all white people benefit from what other cultures offer us. Jassat’s allusion to that colonial mindset, which positions the values and beliefs of non-white societies as being lesser than our own, is clear-cut and powerful.

Not only does it show the confusion caused by white superiority, but also that people of colour have to work so much harder to gain acceptance in UK society. Only through amplifying voices like Jassat’s is that going to become a thing of the past.  


Unfortunately, the majority of British people of colour will be familiar with the question ‘where are you from originally?’. Which is why Jassat’s inclusion of it in ‘Hopscotch’ is so pertinent. It’s the sort of thing that many would associate with a mentality from a bygone era. But Jassat, as a young woman, has still experienced it. It’s a signifier that things haven’t changed enough.

Jassat entwines that realisation with notions of toxic masculinity:

              Hey beautiful – isn’t she Gorgeous, Stunning, Bollywood Babe – I want you.

Combined with the inevitable question about origin, Jassat exposes how any supposed ‘compliments’ she’s given are ultimately about control and denigration. They mask a very real, very vicious kind of belittlement.

‘Where your blood comes from is such a small portion of who you really are.’ British people give their perspective on the ‘where are you really from?’ question.


Jassat’s observations are both personal and universal. Personal because she has experienced them first hand, and universal because many women of colour in the UK have experienced them too.

Let Me Tell You This could go a long way to improving the representation of BAME voices in both UK consciousness and representation.

The longer texts like this are ignored, the harder the fight becomes.

Grab yourself a copy of Let Me Tell You This via the 404 Ink website today.

World Book History #7: Music In A Crisis

It has been said a thousand times: music is the great healer.

From the earliest days of ritualistic dancing to cathedral choirs, music has always been the most direct form of creative expression. And many people will be feeling that as keenly as ever right now.

In desperate times, it’s always music that brings people together. Its value has been explored in literature for decades, but never is its impact more powerful for any community than when in a crisis.

It’s no wonder, therefore, that the Coronavirus is inspiring writers to ponder its resonance. Back in March, online music publication Pitchfork published this article detailing which albums its writers were listening to in order to ‘ease the lockdown’.

This article features three books which examine the impact of music in a crisis. From Northern Ireland to South Africa via Serbia, they exemplify just how universal the curative power of music is. They explore not just how music unifies people, but also the way it tracks cultural upheaval.  

‘Trouble Songs’, and music in Northern Ireland

Written by the legendary music journalist and activist Stuart Bailie, Trouble Songs is the definitive examination of music in Northern Ireland. Spanning the entire four-decade conflict of The Troubles, Bailie’s book traverses from the early days of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and Radio Free Derry in 1969, right through to the Good Friday Agreement and beyond. Along the way he touches on seminal figures like Terri Hooley, John Lennon’s contrarian support for the IRA and the revelatory power of punk music.

Central to Bailie’s narrative is the way in which music acted as a revolutionary motion for the normal people of Northern Ireland. For many, it was a literal escape from an otherwise disastrous probability. As Jim Reilly of the punk group Stiff Little Fingers says: ‘All my friends I grew up with – they all ended up in the IRA doing long years in prison. And simply because I was playing music that kept me away from that’ (Bailie, 2019).

Stiff Little Fingers onstage in Berlin. Image Credit: Montecruz Foto Flickr

And in Northern Ireland, music counted for the truest representation of the community – a counter to the bias that was appearing elsewhere. Late on, Paul Hartnoll, one half of the English duo Orbital talks about their super-hit ‘Belfast’;

‘We just thought ‘wouldn’t it be good to actually make something that’s beautiful and lovely and soft about Belfast and put it out in England where everybody has a completely different view of the place?’’ (Bailie, 2019).

Bailie proves that during the Troubles, music was both a reaction to the violence and how people come together to rise above it.

How can Electronic Music Save Communities?

Rave culture also has a well-documented history of inclusiveness, from its early beginnings as minority expressionism in the US to the fall-out from the Berlin Wall in 1989. Matthew Collin’s Rave On is meant as an exploration of clubbing across the world, but many of the communities he visits turned to electronic music culture as – just like in Northern Ireland – a reaction to their dire surroundings.

The most obvious example is techno’s birthplace, Detroit. Throughout the book, he hands the narrative over to those who were there at the time, including choice quotes from the likes of scene originator Juan Atkins; ‘There’s nothing to do here. There’s nowhere to go; the scene is dead. That’s why our stuff sounds like it does’ (Atkins, 1988).

The story is similar in Israel, where the psytrance scene has consistently seen Israelis and Arabs push beyond the never-ending conflict and conservatism there. Like in Stuart Bailie’s Trouble Songs, Collin emphasises how it’s most notably the everyday, normal people that come together to push back against distasteful politics and partisan atrocities.

And in his chapter about the impact of house music in South Africa, he examines why it means so much in a country still marred by racial division. But again, in places like Cape Town and the suburbs of Durban, music is what unites black and white people above everything else. When talking about black and white kids partying together for the first time, he makes a profound assertion; ‘rave culture, with its implicit message of tolerance, suggested… that another way might at least be possible’.

What toll does a crisis take on music?

The Troubles saw a high physical cost to musicians. The horrific case of the Miami Showband Massacre is the most infamous example.

But Asne Seierstad, in her wonderfully human With Their Backs to the World: Portraits from Serbia, navigates the mental cost in the final chapter with Yugoslav pop/rock titan Rambo Amadeus.

From the beginning Amadeus’ music reflected civilians’ distrust and their suppression by a malignant regime. He has always cultivated himself as a protest against the uber-nationalistic musical fare that dominated the Serbian charts – and pretty much acted as a propaganda machine – in the late ‘80s.

Rambo Amadeus. Image credit: zeljkoo Flickr

On the one hand, Seierstad spends a lot of time dealing with Amadeus’ cultural importance. When she observes his gigs at the time of writing (1999/2000), he remains as popular and performative as ever, providing welcome relief to students suffering the perennial economic hardships since the break-up of Yugoslavia.

But as he reveals at one point; ‘I’ve asked my parents not to tell me anything related to politics – I’m just sick of hearing everyone complain while nothing happens’. Amadeus expresses what we know many musicians come to feel; that kicking back against oppressive governments – and dealing with everyday political life – is exhausting, and ultimately devoid of romance.


During the coronavirus, many people will have sought solace from music. But a literary approach to why and how it has that power is a useful tool.

Music provides an escape from political wrangling and Machiavellian point-scoring. While much of the press will be focusing on how politicians across the world deal with crises, explorations of music are far more human and relatable.

Music accompanies change, growth and development on a global scale. The three books here, alongside others, are prime examples of why that’s so important.  

Purchase Stuart Bailie’s excellent Trouble Songs from Waterstones here.

Pick up Matthew Collin’s Rave On for an insight into how dance music has also changed Shanghai, New York and more.

And head here to purchase Asne Seierstad’s now classic With Their Backs to the World: Portraits From Serbia.

World Book History #6: Terrorism in Western Literature

How do you write about a lived experience which is not your own? More importantly, *should* you?

Those are questions which must haunt fiction writers all the time. And they need to be considered whenever writing think pieces, articles or blog posts too. It’s clearly not true that everything worth writing has already been written. But when considering certain contexts, there is a discussion to be had around who should be doing the writing.

9/11 and Its Impact on Literature

Post-9/11, terrorism in literature became a small zeitgeist movement in the West. Unsurprisingly, most of that occurred in the US. That horrific day cemented in Western minds the terrifying reality that Arabic, African and Central Asian countries had been experiencing for decades. Terrorism is obviously a well-found fear, but paranoia can be a very dangerous tool as well.

And Western literature hasn’t risen above the more pernicious, xenophobic elements of the aftermath either. It’s not alone in that; that paranoia has been capitalised on right across Western entertainment media. Numerous Hollywood box office hits have laid themselves on a dubious bed bolted together by a distrust of foreigners since.

Unfortunately, in the hands of writers, that same alarm-ism can be wielded in just as worrying a fashion. Just like how war films are often showcases of patriotism without any real nuance or second glancing at the wider situation, authors can be fuelled by the darker connotations of the society around them.

At its core, American Sniper is about white fear
Bradley Cooper in Clint Eastwood’s 2014 blockbuster American Sniper.

Notably, you don’t see the same misguided one-sidedness in much Middle Eastern literature. Why? The difference is in that idea of a lived experience.

The Lived Experience

The history of violence in the Middle East is impossible to surmise quickly. It’s as much a result of despotic power structures and foreign intervention as it might be religious zeal or the desire to protect one’s livelihood. The issue with Western authors writing about these situations is that they often have no understanding of them beyond how their media frames them. The distinction comes down to what writers have actually seen.

An example of the dichotomy between an American lifestyle and lived experience is Khaled Housseini’s ‘The Kite Runner’, a novel whose acclaim transcends the cultural divide. Housseini has lived in America since the age of fifteen but sought political asylum during the Soviet War in Afghanistan in the late 1970’s. It’s the beauty of the liquid and emotional praise which makes his book so appealing, and Housseini’s ability to challenge Western readers with both distant horror and relatability.

But when approached by writers who have no lived experience, it becomes problematic. Take the American author Richard Updike, for example. He has famously admitted that the majority of research for his 2006 novel ‘Terrorist’ was conducted via a book called ‘The Koran For Dummies’. It’s an attitude problem. If my friend comes to me and says that he hates immigrants based on the Brexit Party’s manifesto, then it reflects the same desire to absorb the quickest or most reactionary reading material.

A good example of writing which encapsulates the entire complexities surrounding extremism is Syrian author Khaled Khalifa’s ‘In Praise of Hatred’. Amidst a maelstrom of violence, torture and hateful worldviews, Khalifa manages (at points) to make one feel pity for some perpetrators, without ever choosing a side. There’s a caveat in this case, in that Khalifa is a man writing from a woman’s perspective. But he writes with the kind of sensitivity and understanding that many Westerners lack towards Arabic gender politics. 

Open letter from Khaled Khalifa
Khaled Khalifa, the author of ‘In Praise of Hatred’.

There are exceptions to the rule. As Ruth Franklin highlights, books like Lorraine Adams’ ‘Harbor’ provides an example of a US author with the nous to intricately research and shape their characters’ perspective and journey. And there’s plenty of ‘Troubles’ fiction which uses drama as a tool for exposing the wider reality, rather than making it a baseless, narrow pool. Brian Moore’s ‘Lies of Silence’, for example, mirrors a lot of Middle Eastern literature in that it depicts the everyday people, who want nothing to do with the violence, as the pivotal victims.

An interview with US author and former intelligence officer J. A. Walsh on writing about terrorism.

Representation of Arabic Writing in Education

Representation and format are to blame too. In the UK, there’s no foreign literature on secondary school educational syllabi at all, so readers are required to seek it out for themselves. They’re often published in anthologies, but as Ruth Franklin wrote for the New Republic; ‘anthologies are panoramas, not stereoscopes; the picture they present is wide not deep’ (2016).

The short story format suffers from the same limitations. For example, in ‘Girl, Balancing’, Helen Dunmore’s 14-page-long ‘A Thousand Roses’ – which revolves around a woman who believes her foreign lodger named Khalid may be planting bombs in her suitcase – falls prey to that very ‘Middle England’ ignorance. But the format doesn’t allow for it either. 

There’s also the tenuous reality of translation of Arabic literature. The translations are re-configured to fit in with Western reading sensibilities. That means that there’s room for the messages to get lost in translation with regards to how the author intended them to be received.

Alongside all this is the long-standing issue of reach and distribution. As outlined in this paper about Saudi Arabian writing, much of the most evocative literature hasn’t travelled ‘beyond the Arab world’s periphery’ (Moghales et al., 2018). Obviously Arabic literature is far from the only type to be undervalued in this way. But on an issue like terrorism, it exposes Western publishing prejudices against certain perspectives.

By extension, the educational value of terrorist literature in the west in general is reduced. By fuelling the inward-facing, arrogant dialogue that has seen the ascendancy of Trump, this model suggests that despite having actually lived these things, Arabian authors’ stories cannot possibly be of as much value as Western writers.

Ultimately, The Answer Is Research

Without any desire to actually understand the people they’re writing about, Western authors will only create more literature that’s shallow and vacuous. If one has not or cannot live the experience they’re writing about, then they have to trust in the perspectives of those who have.

For readers, starting from within a culture and then venturing out is the best way to get the most balanced perspective. It’s just a shame that that option has never been as accessible as it should be.

World Book History #5: Jailbirds: Lessons From A Women’s Prison

Image credit: Grazia Horwitz Flickr

Between 2014-2017, UK-based writer and charity worker Mim Skinner worked in prisons as an art teacher. Jailbirds: Lessons from a Women’s Prison is the product of running various creative courses for inmates in a women’s institution. The mainstream UK press is quick to cover occurrences in men’s prisons, but just like in wider society, women’s prisons are a blind spot for many and hardly ever feature in the wider discussion around the criminal justice system. Jailbirds seeks to change that.

In her introduction, Skinner writes that ‘we hear headlines and news reports and Jeremy Kyle’s views, of course, but rarely hear the individual stories of those whose lives are tangled up in the criminal justice system’. This quote entails almost everything Skinner is attempting to do with the book; change the perception of women in prison and attitudes towards prison in general.

Whether dealing with drugs, mental health or intimately feminine issues like pregnancy, Skinner focuses on tackling stigma. This is not just the stigma around women in prison, but also addiction and the decisions people make when in the most desperate of situations. It’s easy to look and judge from afar, but one can never know how they’d behave or react until they were in that situation.

An interview with a series of American female prisoners. A different country but with many of the same issues.

One of the biggest problems people face upon release is rehabilitation back into everyday life and the ongoing mental health of those struggling to adapt. As Skinner writes at one point, ‘The NHS and prison budgets, it seemed, could stretch to pills but rarely to CBT or counselling’. The problem is that oftentimes these people aren’t seen as redeemable, but they’re just as capable of contributing to society as anyone else, if given the chance.

There are consistent examples throughout the book of the residents being encouraged to form a real sense of identity for themselves and as a family. This is particularly pertinent when Skinner writes about one of her classes entitled A Stitch in Time and that ‘this was the first time anyone had asked these women what their dreams for the future might be’.

This is symptomatic of the ignorance of the ruling/upper classes in Britain; those less well-off never feel validated or cared for. This is, of course, something we’ve seen extensively in Britain over the past decade and has been highlighted by Brexit. The socio-economic issues that can contribute to women winding up in prison permeate the rest of society and restoring class balance is imperative if these women are going to be supported upon release.

One paragraph in particular is almost as a call to arms:

                                           ‘If you’re a member of the press, rest assured –

                                           being in prison isn’t nice. It also isn’t that good at

                                           rehabilitating people, because politicians don’t

                                           want to look like they’re putting money into the

                                           prison system rather than the NHS… It’s about time

                                           we acknowledge that both of these institutions

                                           deal with our national health’.

If society is going to become better at supporting women and gaining maximum equality, then it needs to start with those who have the very least. Prisons are centres of punishment, but the discussion around the circumstances that see women deprived and forced into them needs to become more widespread. Jailbirds is helping to kick that narrative into gear.

You can find out what life is really like within women’s prisons by ordering a copy of Jailbirds: Lessons from a Women’s Prison today.

World Book History #4: Inside Voices, Outside Light

Image credit: Jen Flickr

Iceland is often perceived as one of the world’s most mysterious countries. Exposed in the far north, miles from any mainland, it’s sometimes depicted as a lonely, cut-off place, with harsh winters but one of the planet’s most breath-taking landscapes.

Yet, just like its fellow Scandinavian countries, it has an incredibly rich and historic literary culture. Sigurdur Palsson, whose repertoire includes plays, poetry and prose is one of Iceland’s most renowned exports. Inside Voices, Outside Light was translated by long-time collaborator Martin S. Regal and published in 2014 and features poems from almost 40 years of Palsson’s work.

There are a number of ways in which Palsson’s poetry can both reflect and educate humanity. Just like much Icelandic poetry, Palsson constantly references Icelanders’ deep relationship with land and the power of nature. It takes all of Iceland’s previously discussed idiosyncrasies – particularly its landscape and geographical nuance – and turns them into a beautiful component of national pride, one which is shared by pretty much all Icelanders.

As Regal writes in his forward for Inside Voices, Outside Light: ‘Even the most complex of Palsson’s images or meditations are outward looking, not products of a dramatized or analysed self; they are offerings to the reader rather than insights into the writer’s mind’. Palsson’s vivid and gorgeous vision works in tandem with the wider implications of global warming. The systematic protection and upkeep we, as humans, need to devote to the planet is absolutely our responsibility – and we’ve been neglecting it.  

This has been part of the very fibre of his work right from the earliest collections. In ‘Nocturne for Saturn’ (1980) the title planet is depicted as a ghostly, wraith-like presence full of ‘blonde tears’ and silence; not worlds away from the potential future of Earth in 2019. By contrast, the final contribution, ‘By River and Ocean’ (2012), draws on Greek mythology and tracks the beauty and growth of Earth through the millenia, indulging in mankind’s consistent misunderstanding of nature.

But there are also lessons in how to emphasise the power of natural beauty in writing. ‘Plywood’ (one of the poems Palsson specifically asked Regal to translate) references the ‘nature vs industrialism’ debate that has been engulfing Iceland for decades. Ultimately though, it asserts that Iceland owes all its beauty, pliability and growth to both the elements and mankind working in conjunction.

Image credit: Chris Yunker flickr

In ‘The Art of Poetry’ he suggests that his writing is entirely dictated by the actions and patterns of snow blizzards, and in ‘The Black Land’ he asserts that without its freezing backdrops and icy/snowy measures Iceland feels like a paralysed, alien world. The dense winter snows make vast swathes of the country impassable, but in Palsson’s view they open up the potential for real, raw beauty.

Inside Voices, Outside Light doesn’t preach – in fact, it seems as though social consciousness was never at the top of Palsson’s writing agenda. But his connection with nature, so clearly persistent here, should be a point of inspiration.

In Part three of ‘Poem Energy Need’ (2009), he writes that we are ‘throwing stones from glass houses, or glass from stone houses, depends on the mood’. We, as humans, have a duty to save the planet. In 2019, it is only us that can do so, and only us that can condemn it to death. Inside Voices, Outside Light presents the message we should have been aware of all along.

If you want to explore more of Palsson’s intoxicating relationship with nature, then pick up a copy of Inside Voices, Outside Light today.