On 4th November, York PEN welcomed Courttia Newland to give a reading and Q&A with students in the first of our ‘Authors&Activists’ series. Courttia describes himself as an “author, screenwriter, playwright, creative writing tutor [and] literary activist” and has previously been involved with English PEN through conducting creative writing workshops in prisons.
The evening began with Connor, current co-chair, introducing York PEN and giving a whistle-stop tour of Courttia’s career so far, and we were then treated to a reading of ‘Underground’ from The Book of Blues. This was a graveyard ghost story with a twist which Courttia read in an incredibly rhythmic way – perfect for a cold and foggy night!
Connor and Joey, this year’s co-chairs, led the Q&A, starting off by asking about the term “literary activist”. Courttia explained that he believes writing is about changing things and making people see things in a new way. His own experience growing up of people “ignoring or misrepresenting [his] cultural experience” has led him to become a passionate advocate for sections of society who don’t appear in fiction, both by writing about these people and helping them become better engaged in literature: “I want to depict people’s humanity – that’s what great art does, and for me it’s a better philosophy than ‘art for art’s sake’, which is what a lot of people prefer to hearing a message.”
What really came through, as the evening progressed, was the enormous amount of change that still needs to happen in this country. Courttia told us that according to statistical studies, diversity in literature has got worse since he started writing in the 1990s. There’s also a vicious cycle where diverse authors (in terms of race, gender, sexuality, class and ethnicity) are refused publication with the explanation that “there’s no market for you”, but there will not be a market until readers are introduced to this fiction on the bookshelves. Courttia also feels he is sometimes pigeon holed as a black writer, with the expectation that he will always write about “identity’.
However, there is some progress being made. Courttia co-edited The Penguin Book of New Black Writing (published in 2000) and made us all laugh by recounting the difficulties of deciding what “writers of African descent” (the original criteria for being included in the anthology) actually means – “ultimately, isn’t everyone from African heritage?!” In the spirit of inclusivity, it was decided that any writer who came forward making this argument would be considered. When Courttia did a workshop in Feltham Prison, he described how he didn’t want to “bring the work down” but instead took in a “difficult” piece and used talking about hip-hop and rap as a way in to working with the prisoners. As he said, “if anyone’s got stories, it’s them”.
Unsurprisingly, there followed a lot of questions from the floor which continued into the mixer, for which York PEN are grateful to LitSoc for its contributions. Courttia gave a brilliant start to our ‘Authors&Activists’ series and an entertaining and thought-provoking evening.
by Florence Holmes, third year English student and York PEN member.