It is no surprise that reading has taken a back seat in today's society, with Tik Tok, social media and music consuming the average young person’s day. ‘Black British Novels: What Lies Beneath’ was organised by Sarah Smith at Brent Culture Service. The event, aimed to uncover why literature is not the first route of escapism for young people, tackle the ever-growing battle of ‘reluctant readers’ within the UK and converse about the authors’ experiences with literature.
Passion for Literature
Sarah Smith opened the session by asking a pivotal question: “Where did you get your passion for reading?” Naturally, you would expect the answers to revolve around picking up a book at a young age – Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Magic Key by Roderick Hunt and literary classic An Inspector Calls all come to mind.
However, Derek Owusu surprisingly subverted this expectation, admitting that though he had written the first novel from rapper Stormzy's imprint #Merky Books, he “hated reading and writing when he was young”.
The first memory Derek had of writing stories and being excited was in Year Four, when his enthusiasm for literature was squashed by his English teacher’s harsh criticism of his handwriting, which according to Owusu, is something that even to this day, stays with him. His passion for literature stemmed from taking reading into his own hands at 24 years old.
Derek said: “It felt like I had a superpower when I started reading and I’ve read everyday since the age of 24”. “I feel as if I don’t read 10 pages a day, I'll lose the power and gift of reading” he exclaimed.
Alex Wheatle had more of a conventional introduction to books as he recounted: “I used to patch pages of The Beano comics together with sellotape in my children's home and hide, reading them with a torch under the covers”.
The conversation then turned to the term ‘reluctant readers’, used by the government to describe people that refrain from reading due to economic, social or educational reasons. Both authors agreed that for reading to engage its audience, there needs to be a commonality between the reader and the topic, genre or character.
Wheatle explained this, saying “we need to become librarians again. Find what people are interested in and find books that cater to them”. He expanded on this, remarking that “Storytelling is in our DNA, so once we have introduced a narrative that is relatable, it will cause reluctant readers to engage”.
With this being said, it is not surprising that 16.4% of adults in England, or 7.1 million people, can be described as having 'very poor literacy skills' according to the National Literacy Trust (NLT). This was underpinned by the popular Channel 4 show ‘The Write Offs’, which followed UK adults taking a crash course in literacy, with participants ranging from 22 to 66.
This is exacerbated by the fact that ‘just 25.8% of children [said] they read daily in their free time in 2019’, with this being ‘the lowest ever recorded’ according to the NLT.
With these damaging reports it is clear that critical changes need to be made if we as a country are to make literature more accessible and relatable to all, taking on the Librarian approach to source books that connect with its readers.
Derek continued this conversation by emphasising his passion to get the 'Mandem' reading, saying that it wasn't that young black men were completely opposed to literature but it was all about "tapping into what they are already reading".
As there were countless of example of young men reading self help books such as Robert T. Kiyosaki's Rich Dad Poor Dad, "the answer to getting the 'Mandem' reading is using the type of books they already enjoy as a gateway into other literature" Owusu said.
Young boys are mentally craving ways to better themselves and aim to "get out of whatever life they are in so a book like The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho is the perfect read" explained Owusu.
Books are the gateway to learning, and if something doesn't change with the engagement of literature, adults, children and families will suffer in terms of communication and education.
The Authors Recommend:
And the Stars Were Burning Brightly by Danielle Jawando
Windrush Child by Benjamin Zephaniah
The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
To watch Black British Novels Event click Brent Culture Services Youtube.
Voice spoke to Alex Wheatle click here for interview