Courttia Newland, writer of many urban literature novels and short stories, met up with Catch a Vibe to talk about black writers, the future of black writing and co-editing Global Village Tell Tales 4 a collection of short stories from writers around the world.
CAV: In compiling Tell Tales were you looking for a specific kind of writing?
Courttia Newland: Not really, I am trying to promote young black writers, of all ages all genders and sexuality. I just want good writing, challenging writing. I want someone to tell me a story and tell it well.
CAV: Were you looking for black writers in particular?
Courttia Newland: No. Of course I’m going to try and attract black writers, that’s a given for me, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be looking for or reading an Adam Thorpe or a Catherine Smith. In an ideal world we would have everyone, we’d have the writers that are really engaged with the notion of being black in that sense and others that want to write outside of the box or writers who really want to champion that ‘being black’ box and do it well and we’d have writers that kind of throw the whole box out. Otherwise it’s extremely limiting.
CAV: What would you say to young black writers, how do they get going?
Courttia Newland: The writers have to push it and have to be open to the fact that it is going to be tough and they have to challenge themselves and they have to feel that from the heart. Some people just don’t want to fight the battle. We’re in a society where it’s not an asset to be black and so therefore every time we do things like signings or speeches or panels, we’re being political whether we like it or not. That does not mean that it has to come into our writing, but we can’t pretend it’s not there. I’m not against mainstream publishing, all my books are mainstream, but they don’t get a chance to see what’s out there whereas I’m on the ground level and always have been. There needs to be a conduit between them and people like myself and maybe that conduit is the missing link.
In America writing by writers of African American descent results in profit and film deals. I thought of course it’s happening here (in Britain) but we all know why it won’t happen here. I am a bit outraged that it hasn’t happened yet and I will challenge that. It’s about people actually feeling like they want to do something about it. We have not reached that stage yet where people can forget about where writers have come from. People are not getting publishing deals or jobs in the industry due to merit, they’re getting it because of contacts and who they know and you have to come from a certain place. The whole deal with Tell Tales is to try and break that. We have to keep saying that here it what can be done if you have the tenacity or the will power to do it. The only way we’re going to do that is by being published and going into these spaces and showing people a different world. The Southbank Show we did was great example.
CAV: How do young black writers raise their profile? Where is the industry going for those writers?
Courttia Newland: It’s really hard to find a place. What black writers are trying to do right now is to assert themselves in the mainstream. For me that can have great short term effects, but really bad long term effects especially for us having some kind of industry. Until the industry can come to terms with the fact that we can be different yet a part of what they’re doing and accept those differences, maybe we are going to have this problem. We have to have people in place who can acknowledge what they’re trying to do and validate it.
We need key people in key places who are going to encourage and provide a platform for these writers. They don’t necessarily have to be black people, but it might help because you need to have a sensibility. I am an example; my editor helped me and nurtured me and there have been a few people who have done that in my career and I’ve been lucky enough to have that.
CAV: Tell us something about your own history as a writer.
Courttia Newland: I did not want to be a novelist. I thought they were old guys with a beard, I wasn’t interested. There wasn’t even that thought in my head. I did it because I liked doing it. I didn’t think that anyone would be interested in what I had to say. That only changed because black British writing went through this kind of renaissance in the 90s, that’s what made me sit up and think okay maybe people are ready for that. It was interest in reading that gave me an idea of how to write. I read so many things; even now I have more books than anything else. There are a lot of kids out there who are not aware that there are books that pertain to them. Most of the kids in my school were black, I had a teacher, and she was trying to get us to read. She would bring in this box of books, mostly black American writers like Chester Himes, Toni Morrison, but there were also some black British writers. That was the first time I realised that black people were actually writing and that it was possible. I had never seen writing like that and it just flipped a switch in my head.
CAV: Why short stories?
Courttia Newland: It’s more difficult, but it’s great creatively to hone your craft in a much smaller space than a novel. Learning to write great short stories should be taken really seriously as something completely different. It’s like the difference between being a marathon runner and a sprinter; no-one would say that one was more skilful than the other. Everyone kind of makes choices about what they would like to do.
CAV: What are some of your future plans?
Courttia Newland: We [the Tell Tales collective] would like to publish a journal, 4 times a year, and free, so that we can build an anthology over time and give writers a voice.
My personal purpose is to chronicle the black British experience. It doesn’t mean that I’ll only write about that, but that’s what I’m here to do. I want to have a body of work that people can look at and say, that’s what was going on in that time or in the history of that period or whatever. At the minute my favourite writer is Percival Everett, an African American writer who is really smart and clever about race in today’s contemporary society. That’s where I want to be.
Courttia Newland is a novelist, playwright and writing teacher who recently co-edited Tell Tales Volume 4: The Global Village
Original interview published on Catch a Vibe: http://www.catchavibe.co.uk/interview-with-writer-courttia-newland/841/