Chantelle Lewis is a PhD student in the Sociology department at Goldsmiths College currently undertaking a 3-month placement as a researcher with the Contemporary British Publishing team at the British Library. At present she is exploring inclusivity in independent publishing in contemporary Britain. In this blog post Chantelle speaks to us about her journey from academia to paving the way for change within and beyond publishing.
It began with my dissertation in my first degree, which featured qualitative interviews with mixed race women, discussing their identities and feelings of belonging in the family and wider society. Inspired by these findings, I found there were more questions I wanted to ask about formations of race in Britain with a specific focus on intersectionality within gender, class and sexuality, so I decided to apply for a PhD at Goldsmiths College. My PhD topic is specifically focused on the lived experiences of British mixed race families in a monocultural town in the West Midlands. Though it was only recently that I realised my PhD topic is combined with a sort of self-narration, meaning the idea itself came from my own experiences of being a mixed race woman growing up in Worcestershire. Indeed, many of the themes I have been drawn to whilst studying correlate with my own experiences of growing up in a working class, mixed race family.
The academic world is so competitive that I was aware of the need to actively work alongside studying. I was really keen to do something out of my comfort zone, but indirectly sociological. I knew I wanted to work in an institution which was looking to do more on ‘race’ and representation. At the end of 2016, a placement titled ‘Independent, D-I-Y, and activist BAME publishing’ was advertised by the British Library and I applied. As I don’t have a background in publishing, creative writing, or curation, I was apprehensive about putting myself forward initially though I did (and still do) have a keen interest in writing about inequalities, ‘race’, and representation. I felt that this, combined with my people skills showcased that I could really be an asset to the project. With some help from Eva Lewin from Spread the Word and a couple of Creative Access alumni, I put together an idea that would have people at its core and developed my key focus to be on opening a dialogue between independent publishers invested in writers of colour and the contemporary collections department in the British Library.
I wanted to produce a report for the Library which would give practical recommendations on how the institution can become more engaged with independent publishers committed to inclusivity. I began by looking at the library’s current collections to gauge what was being collected and where the relevant gaps were. After this, I sought to meet with key stakeholders to discuss their stories, responses to the industry and what they thought of the British Library. Most of my conversations focused on the failure of ‘mainstream’ publishers to relish ALL talents in Britain and how they themselves had countered these shortcomings. Some writers were not aware of the fact that the Library wants to try and collect a copy of everything published (even if doesn’t have an ISBN!). Many saw the idea of my project as a good starting point for the British Library to become more engaged with different forms of expression, but agreed there needed to be a series of recommendations rather than a box-ticking exercise.
Relatively early on it became clear to me that the people I was meeting could benefit from either meeting or reconnecting. So many people knew of each other, or knew of the work each other were doing and I wanted to create something to bring all parties together. And ‘Bringing Voices Together (BVT)’ is a networking event that will bring together speakers from publishing, literary, academic and activist backgrounds to debate contemporary issues in publishing and the innovative ways in which they are being overcome. It was produced by the variety of voices I have spoken with over the past few months. The event is effectively sponsored by the innovative ways expressionists of colour have defied marginalisation. I’m hoping for a thorough discussion on the positive aspects of independent publishing and the opportunities it can present for inclusive expression.
The principle aim of the afternoon will be to provide recommendations on how the British Library can become more closely involved with writers of colour in independent publishing. One of the recommendations I am putting together before the event is an online listing of inclusive independent publishers for bookstores and other libraries. This will consist of contact details and a brief bio about publishers. It’ll be the first of its kind for the British Library and will be the first step of active engagement. Certainly, I would like the event to be action driven, coupled with giving a much needed platform to different modes of writing. I believe that BVT will highlight how the strength of collaboration can be the vanguard for change.