My speech for the Creative Futures Writers’ Award, Southbank Centre, 25th October 2019.
When I was first asked to talk at these awards over a year ago, I was so excited I went straight to my computer and wrote 90% of what you’re going to hear in one inspiration fuelled flow. If you’re a writer you might know what that feeling is like, being so fired up that you are carried along by something that isn’t entirely you or what you thought was you.
What ignited this fire? The Creative Future Writers Awards, an award I support with a passion because of its inclusion of all the people who do not normally get included.
The carers, ex-offenders, the homeless, the disabled, the working class, the LGBTQ+, people of colour, refugees, survivors of abuse, people dealing with mental health issues and all the other different selves we have that society makes us feel we should hide. In short, people who don’t normally get to stand in places like this and celebrate being creative.
I was one of those people. I’m Asian, that’s probably easy to spot, but I was also brought up by a single parent mother living on benefits on a council estate. I was an undiagnosed dyslexic until my early twenties, suffered from a condition that left me physically debilitated and three years ago experienced an acute episode of post-natal psychosis.
Reading this list of all my different selves makes me think that I shouldn’t even be left standing, let alone standing here.
But this is the thing, what makes me a marginalised writer, also makes me a better writer. And not just a better writer but a better human being. Why? Because these experiences have given me lessons in life and empathy for all the people I meet and all the characters I create. It has taught me that being different is not a weakness, it is an asset.
Who wants to read about a life that has gone perfectly? Who wants to know about the easy ride? Would you go to see a motivational speaker if all they had to say was, I was born into incredible wealth, and because my parents had lots of connections, I didn’t have to work very hard and became a millionaire with no struggle or hardship? Not only would you not go and see that person, you would probably want to hurt that person.
But, if a speaker tells you I was born into poverty, my parents neglected my physical and emotional needs and everyone I knew said I would never amount to anything. But with hard work and the help of strangers, I started a business and though it failed in the first few years I kept on going until… I don’t even need to finish that sentence. You’re hooked, right? That is the power of struggle, that is the power of conflict, that is the power of story because stories are not stories unless they have conflict. And if you have had conflict in your life (and, by the way, I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t) then you have stories. And if you have managed to get through those conflicts to see the other side then you don’t only have stories, you have lessons.
This doesn’t mean we should preach. The artist’s role isn’t to tell people what to think. What the artist’s role is, in my very humble opinion, is to be a guide. A guide of what is happening in our society now, a guide in where we’re heading if we carry on the way we are, a guide in how certain actions in our past can dictate our present, a guide in what is good for us and what destroys us. A guide in being human. Because being human is the thing we all share. It is what makes us weak and also strong. And we can be both. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with being both. So I take back what I said about being marginalised making me stronger. It has also made me weaker. But weakness is only a failing if we let it consume us, if we let it define us. Nothing defines us more than our actions and the action of writing can be the most defining of all, because in the act of writing we expose our strengths and weaknesses. We expose our humanity.
In this room is a thousand stories told through the experiences that only you as an individual can tell. Ideas are common, but your take on those ideas are endless. If I gave you a writing prompt right now, you would all come up with a different story. If I gave you that same writing prompt in a year’s time, you would write a different story. We are moulded by many factors, some of which are highlighted in this award, but we are also moulded by time and new experiences. Nothing is static, everything is transient and what the writers have done in getting into this beautiful book, is try to encapsulate that transience into a moment.
And for us all, as readers, to take what we will from that moment. Because being a reader is just as defining as being a writer.
A final note before I leave, I want to tell all the writers in this room to never feel that because you’re from an underrepresented group you only have to write stories about that group. With my first novel, ‘The Things We Thought We Knew’ I wanted to write a book about council estates that wasn’t about gang violence, drugs and crime and I wanted to write about an Asian family that wasn’t a big, extended family who were just interested in arranged marriages and chapatis. With ‘How to Find Home’ I wanted to write a book about a homeless girl that goes on an adventure and, in turn, take the reader on an adventure that would change the way they thought about homelessness itself. The first story I knew about, I’d lived it, the second story I learnt about through rigorous research and first-hand accounts, but in both cases I wanted the same outcome. To break stereotypes and amplify the stories we don’ normally hear about. Those are the stories that fire me up, those are the stories that make me want to write.
So I want to encourage you all to write the stories that fire you up. Let them set you on the type of inspiration fuelled flow that wrote this speech. Expose your humanity and, one day, I look forward to letting you be my guide.
The Creative Future Writers’ Award is an annual development programme for talented underrepresented writers offering prizes, mentoring and publication in an anthology. To find out more click below
And to fidn out how to keep this amazing prize free for all of those who enter please click below