In Discussion: #Merky Books' new authors
In anticipation of his upcoming autobiography, 'Dreaming In A Nightmare', activist Jeremiah Emmanuel discusses with fellow #Merky Books author, Derek Owusu, what it means to be a black writer today
Words by Shannon Mahanty Images by Danny K Sunday 29 March, 2020 Long read
In 2018, BRIT award-winning rapper Stormzy spearheaded a new literary movement with #Merky Books – his Penguin imprint that aims to even out the publishing playing field. Providing a platform for a new generation of authors, it publishes the kind of talent who aren’t always given these opportunities, no matter how deserved.
Jeremiah Emmanuel is an entrepreneur, youth activist, electorate to the UK Youth Parliament and one of #Merky Books’ most highly anticipated writers. In his autobiography, Dreaming In A Nightmare: Finding A Way Forward In A World That’s Holding You Back, he weaves personal setbacks and successes into a broader look at Britain today. Powerful and moving, it’s a truth-telling toolkit for young people facing everything from homelessness to knife crime.
After editing the collection of essays, Safe: On Black British Men Reclaiming Space last year, esteemed poet and fellow author Derek Owusu wrote That Reminds Me. The heartbreaking coming-of-age story about a young Ghanaian Londoner is his first novel from #Merky Books.
For this special interview, on the verge of the release of Dreaming In A Nightmare: Finding A Way Forward In A World That’s Holding You Back, Emmanuel and Owusu meet for a frank conversation about the roles and responsibilities of being a black writer today.
‘I want it to be a voice for the voiceless. There are so many people in situations like mine. Primarily, I want them to know you can achieve your goals. The secondary audience is everyone else at that table; people who can’t necessarily relate to my experiences, but are willing to learn about the issues affecting lots of young people.’
Jeremiah Emmanuel: ‘I have to tell you, Derek, the cover of your book – an innocent young child who reminded me of myself – really guided me in my writing process. We haven’t had the same upbringing, but so many parts of That Reminds Me resonated. Lots of people encounter the issues we’ve faced.’
Derek Owusu: ‘Thank you. I want to ask you, at what point did you actually say to yourself, “I want to write a book”?’
JE: ‘I’m 20, I never thought I was going to be an author. The idea stemmed from when I was an intern at Virgin. At lunch one day, the topic of police stop and search came up. I shared my experiences: it’s annoying, it’s humiliating and everyone walking past automatically thinks you’re a criminal. If I was having that conversation with my friends, we’d be laughing because it’s so normal, but everyone around the table looked horrified. My colleague was in tears, saying, “I’m sorry this happens just because of the colour of your skin”. That’s when I realised my reality; my day-to-day life could be seen as a nightmare to someone else. When I heard about #Merky Books, I thought maybe I could turn my ideas into a book. I met the team, they helped me through the process and I completely fell in love with writing.’
DO: ‘That idea of being desensitised to experiences is really interesting. When I was writing That Reminds Me, I wrote it in a way that I thought was hopeful. But when people tell me that parts are sad, it hit me – yes, this is bleak stuff. You don’t want to feel sorry for yourself. A lot of people read and relate to it, but take that moment where someone started crying – they must have realised, “wow”, my life has been pretty different to a lot of people’s.’
JE: ‘What’s interesting is that when I started interviewing my mum and sister for the book, we realised we’d forgotten a lot of the bad things we went through. We’d moved seven times by the time I was seven. My childhood felt like being on the run, losing friends and adapting to new environments. My mum was sick, which led to the local authorities taking us for a short time. I have faint memories but, as kids, do we deal with trauma by forgetting?’
DO: ‘That was the basis for my book: trying to remember. A lot of the time, you get to a crisis point and think, “How did I get here?” Then you hear about somebody else’s trauma and it forces you to remember. Writing has helped me to understand things. It made me want to ask my mum, “What was your childhood like?”
JE: ‘Chapter one is called “Identity [My Mother’s Story”]. Learning about her was so important.’
DO: ‘Is there a particular kind of person you hope will read your book?’
JE: ‘I want it to be a voice for the voiceless. There are so many people in situations like mine. Primarily, I want them to know you can achieve your goals. The secondary audience is everyone else at that table; people who can’t necessarily relate to my experiences, but are willing to learn about the issues affecting lots of young people.’
DO: ‘I worry I made a bit of a mistake. WhenI sent the proof to journalist Symeon Brown, he said, “Derek, you want the mandem to read this, but it’s written in such a literary way, I don’t think it’s accessible to a 15-year-old guy from Tottenham”. That hurt, because I really want to get young black boys reading.’
JE: ‘I don’t think that’s a mistake. There are young people who can relate to the topics you talk about – what goes to say some aren’t interested in poetry and your writing style? When you think of Stormzy and J Hus, you wouldn’t compare their style; there’s not one fixed way of writing. Do you think the publishing industry is changing?’
DO: ‘Progress is happening, but it’s slow. We need to educate more people about the process. There are schemes helping [underrepresented groups] break into the industry. I think until we can reconstruct society so it’s not based on racist ideas, we need these programmes to level the playing field. That said, I hate the word BAME; you could have 10 per cent [BAME authors] who identify as being from the Asian community and one per cent from an Afro-Caribbean one – there needs to be more nuance. The fact that #Merky Books, a place that focuses on a new generation of writers, exists is huge progress.’
JE: ‘Without it, there would be a lot of wasted talent. Who said the 15-year-old from Brixton in a hoodie and a tracksuit can’t be an author?’
DO: ‘And who says he doesn’t read? That’s the common misconception with young black boys. In publishing, when you get a book pitched, you go into marketing mode. Who is the target audience? I think your book is going to be very popular. Young black boys from the ends don’t tend to read novels, but they do read self-help books. I don’t know a young black boy who hasn’t read Rich Dad Poor Dad or Think And Grow Rich.’
JE: ‘If I can give examples of how you can change your situation, and other #Merky Books authors and people in different industries can also offer perspectives, it will have a big impact. Within my community, success is defined by what young people see in front of them: football and the music industry. Or, the drug dealer who has all the chains, and the nice watches and cars. Those are the only three examples of success a lot of young people see, because we’re totally underrepresented in many other professions.’
DO: ‘Exactly. When I was younger, I’d think of authors as middle-class white men surrounded by books. It’s important that people see writers like you and I and Stormzy, and recognise it’s not a nerdy thing to do. Many of the bigger, black, British male writers – Michael Donkor, Caryl Phillips, Diran Adebayo – all went to Oxford. We talk about race, but we need to bring class into the conversation, too.’
JE: ‘My book is 70,000 words. I didn’t go to uni, but that’s like seven dissertations. It’s essential to let people know they can achieve beyond their expectations.’
DO: ‘I hope we see the development of a black British canon, which is eventually built into the mainstream. I believe great literature can transform the world. Without it, we wouldn’t have philosophy or religion. Books can develop empathy, understanding and imagination; we’re nothing without imagination.’
JE: ‘Exactly. In my community there are so many stories, it’s time for the world to hear them.’
With thanks to Libreria Bookshop, 65 Hanbury Street, London. libreria.io
Watch Jeremiah Emmanuel and Derek Owusu share their favourite things
'Dreaming In A Nightmare: Finding A Way Forward In A World That’s Holding You Back' by Jeremiah Emmanuel is out on 20 August in hardback and audiobook; 'That Reminds Me' by Derek Owusu is out now in hardback and audiobook, both from #Merky Books