'Brave New Words' - Review
by Amy Baxter
'I began writing poems not because I was inspired, but because I was compelled.' So begins Shivanee Ramlochan’s essay 'The Good Brown Girl: questioning obedience in Indo-Caribbean women'. As Ramlochan is compelled to write, I am to reading; I race through Brave New Words at breakneck speed, filling my commute with words and thoughts and quotes and knowledge. I am all at once amazed by its contents, and angered by it. The topics range from the familiar to entirely new, the writing stupendous throughout. This book is a celebration, and a list of disappointments. It’s bloody good.
I had really hoped it would be good. The cover reads like a dream list of interviewees for Bad Form, names that you know, and your mother would love. There are more awards in the 'About the authors' section at the back than I can fit into the word count for this review. Booker Prize awards, Costa Book awards, an endless spread of international literature prizes. Bernadine Evaristo, Blake Morrison, Romesh Gunesekera. All of these names make the book interesting; they do not, by themselves, make the book good. That’s the best bit. All of these essays are fascinating.
That, in a book of essays, is due in large part to the excellence of the editor. The editor of Brave New Words is Susheila Nasta, MBE, Professor of Contemporary and Modern Literatures at Queen Mary, University of London, and Professor Emeritus at the Open University. Not only that, but the Editor-in-Chief of Wasafiri, the magazine of international contemporary writing, founded in 1984, and which has just turned out its 100th edition. Brave New Words, in Nasta’s own words, 'celebrates 35 years of Wasafiri and continues its founding aims'. The cynical among you may deem the purpose of Brave New Words as 'diversity', I think it is more romantic than that. Its purpose is to bring you to worlds beyond the collective imagination of a world made stale by the monotony of contemporary literature. It’s a voyage into the world left purposefully unknown by the publishing industry. And it’s very, very interesting to read.
I am tempted in writing this review to summarise each essay and its authors, my thoughts on each, the internal debates it led me to. To encourage you to read their entirety, I will instead draw your attention to just three. The final essay in the collection by Maria Warner is 'Out Loud: the experience of literature in the digital space'. I am struggling to find words to describe, on an online blog, an essay discussing the impact of the internet on literature. Literature, she argues, has always been, and always will be, a transforming art form. Stories will always exist, but the mediums through which they are expressed are changing, and that is not just okay, but exciting. Her words fill me with curiosity; a newfound appreciation for the impact of the systems I take for granted to connect with you, our readership, our supporters. There is something just as exciting about reading Evaristo’s essay. Not only the essay itself, but the knowledge that we hold of her future success, reading her from 2019, reflecting on the creation of black womxn in the present day. 'What a Time to be a (Black) (British) (Womxn) Writer' declares the title. As I read the essay, I am filled with joy. She spouts off book after book, name after name of groundbreaking black writers who are breaking ground with their work in the 2010s. Though it is disheartening to realise that this work, that of The Slumflower, Otegha Uwagba, Gal-Dem, to name a few, is still ground-breaking in 2020, I am left with the resounding knowledge of Evaristo that 'the spirit of entrepreneurship, community and arts activism will us stain us long after it’s no longer woke to be “woke”'.
The last essay I will leave you with is the second in the collection, and the one that I began with. I may, perhaps, be biased towards it. Her 2017 poetry book Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting is visceral. It defies explanation, it is transformative and loud and quiet and beautiful. Her essay is the same. It describes her youth, how her poetry began, and I think, for you young readers, it would be of most immense importance. She articulates her personal struggles so deeply, I would defy any person, any creed, any gender, to read it and not be moved. I will not spoil it for you, but I would implore you to read it.
This review is not intended to be gushing, but it probably is. In mid-January, when my desire to create beyond my salaried hours is dwindling, and my knowledge of my purpose is shaking, I am revitalised by the words of these authors. Brave New Words is a celebration of Wasafiri, and a celebration of literature.