WORKING AS a young women’s advocate, and as a trustee for Imkaan, a UK-based, black feminist organisation, Kafayat Okanlawon is acutely familiar with listening to women and girls tell stories about their lives – each one different from the next. It’s this work, her desire to open up spaces for underrepresented groups and her awareness of the importance of preserving the tales of our ancestors that prompted her to curate a collection of experiences in her book, This is Us: Black British Women and Girls.
The anthology of more than 100 personal essays, poems and anecdotes highlights the breadth of the experiences of black British women and girls but alongside the differences there is also familiarity. Readers will no doubt be able to connect with the accounts which explore everything from colourism, mother-daughter relationships and celebrating blackness to identity and musings on singledom and sickle cell.
Okanlawon’s commitment to supporting black women and girls extends beyond her day job and providing a platform for them to tell their stories in her debut book. Proceeds from This Is Us will also be going to Imkaan, which is dedicated to addressing violence against black and minoritised women and girls.
We spoke to Okanlawon about curating this collection of poetry and prose.
Q: What inspired you to curate these stories and experiences?
A: I think my inspiration definitely comes from working in the violence against women and girls sector and hearing stories from women on a day-to-day basis and seeing the amazing things they’re doing while still using services and just seeing how multi-faceted women are and that everyone has a story but not just, for example, when I see them about their story about violence against women but on top of that they are lawyers and they’re doing this and they’re doing that.
I would say the idea around legacy and generation and ancestors I only have one grandparent left and when going to her birthday in 2017 to celebrate her 80th, I had this moment of ‘oh my gosh this is my last grandparent’…I want to do something for my grandmother.
I wanted to open up a space to allow women and girls to just come through and just say what they want to say how they want to say it.
Q: You chose to include contributors aged 4-86. Tell us about what motivated you to include such a wide age range?
A: I feel like if we’re going to tell our stories everybody needs to be included and so for me I was like I’m not going to have an age range, I’m just going to allow anyone who wants to contribute to contribute. And as I said, because this was something that was very much inspired by my grandmother and my mother, I felt like it was only right to have that side of age involved. If I could [have gone to] 100, I would have gone for it.
With a lot of the work that I’ve done, I realised that the older generation seem to be left out because of this technology fear and stuff. Even my mother sometimes she tells me that she feels excluded from things because she isn’t on social media. I was like, you know what, let me bring you along and not leave you out – likewise [with] the younger generation of women out too.
Q: Describe the process of reading through the submissions and tell us about any of the pieces that had a striking impact on you?
A: I would say [I experienced] different emotions and I had different attachments to particular stories for several different reasons – where, for example, a place in my life where maybe I haven’t healed – so when I see women speaking of stories with their father, it gave me a moment of reflection and rah, you know what? Let me go call my dad.
With the older generation, I had to go to their houses, record them, write the stories and go back so that just kind of adds to the story. So when I read it, I smile and I think about all the things that weren’t in the piece.
Q: What were some of the themes that struck you as you were reading and editing the different contributions?
A: In terms of the themes…to me I didn’t want to dictate what people brought to the book, I very much wanted women to just write and then just work it out. I think that some of the things that came up a lot were love, freedom comes up a lot, there’s definitely something around a higher power whether they name that higher power as God or spirituality; definitely a lot of strength and triumph but there’s also sorrow and sadness and what I love is that in a lot of the stories you get all of those emotions in one – but then equally you get them again throughout the book.
Q: What impact do you want This Is Us to have on readers?
A: I would say, to me, this book is very much for black women and so I definitely want to hear from black women. I definitely would like them to feel that they are not alone and I want them to relate to these stories. And if they can’t necessarily relate personally to these stories, I would love there to be an empathy for people who are going through things.
I think back to a story called Where Do I Belong? by Denise Matthews, where she speaks about being a lighter skinned woman and how she feels in society. A lot of the time, when we’re speaking about colourism, it is about dark skinned women and how they’ve been treated which of course is an issue – but equally, it was nice to actually hear from Denise and hear about how she’s experienced colourism.
I would like for it to create empathy understanding and for people to be able to relate to it, to relate to some of the stories.
This Is Us: Black British Women and Girls by Kafayat Okanlawon is out now and available to buy via Break the Habit Press, Waterstones and Amazon.