Beyond the Secret Garden:

Life and Literature in Lockdown by Darren Chetty and Karen Sands-O’Connor

What does it mean to be a writer of colour during a pandemic and a global movement protesting systemic racism? For this issue’s Beyond the Secret Garden column, we asked Black British and British Asian authors about their experiences over the past few months. Several generously took the time to send us responses to questions about their work, their publications, and the effect of the events of the last few months. What emerges from these responses is a story of struggle and frustration in many cases, but also a generosity of spirit – particularly toward young readers who may have lost access to books during this period. We invite you to attend to their experiences, and then check out the list of books that either have already been published during lockdown, or will appear very soon, so that you can buy them for your home, school or public library collections.

Online Life:

One of the responses that came up again and again when we asked what projects authors and illustrators have been pursuing during lockdown is various forms of online production.

Jasbinder Bilan,

Zanib Mian and Rashmi Sirdeshpande have their own YouTube channels on which they have been doing readings and Q&A sessions for schools. Other writers, including Chitra Soundar and Sita Brahmachari have also produced YouTube videos, and the illustrator Dapo Adeola has run a fascinating series on Instagram Live where he converses with peers about the publishing industry and its pitfalls for those Black writers and artists. Savita Kalhan has been working with her teen reading group remotely. Catherine Johnson and Patrice Lawrence both read stories for Empathy Lab (, and Patrice, who was scheduled to headline the Hay Festival, had a short film of her story, Day Zero and Chips made which is available online. Her daughter is the narrator; Patrice told us that she bribed her to do it ‘with a homemade cottage pie. I am so proud of this.

(The film and the cottage pie.)’ Rashmi Sirdeshpande has also been filming, including a virtual event for the Puffin Festival of Dreams. Irfan Master told us that ‘As writer-in-residence for First Story, and to supplement my income and because I enjoy it, I’ve been working with a local social enterprise in Islington on a mentoring programme for young people.’ Many have done workshops for adults as well, including Savita Kalhan, Zanib Mian, and Patrice Lawrence. Sita Brahmachari has blogged for Amnesty International in her role as Amnesty Ambassador. Jasbinder Bilan, Catherine Johnson, and Sita Brahmachari – along with several other fantastic authors of colour – contributed stories to The Book of Hopes, published online by the National Literacy Trust, to entertain and comfort children during lockdown. If you are one of those readers who has approached us (or anyone else) saying you would like a list of authors of colour you should read, this would be an excellent place to start.

In fact, most of the readings, short films, and even some of the workshops and conversations mentioned here are available for free, online. And this is important, because many of the authors we interviewed mentioned that they had seen an increase in people asking them to do work for free during the lockdown. There was a sense of frustration about this, as recent studies have shown that British authors of colour do not get offered advances as large as white British authors, and many are also expected to do their own marketing and publicity. More than one author who wrote to us questioned whether they could continue working in an industry that does not support them. Most have had school visits and other paid bookings cancelled, and many have had the publication of books pushed back, often as much as a year into the future. While authors and illustrators want very much to reach their audiences, they should not be expected to do this without the support of both the publishing industry and the book-buying public – so please, if you have asked for or used the free online resources produced by these and other generous authors, return the favour and buy one (or all!) of their books. Read them and recommend them. Suggest them and nominate them for prizes (such as the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals, which will be collecting nominations from its member librarians beginning in September).

16 Books for Keeps No.243 July 2020

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