To celebrate the first ‘birthday’ of the Cotswold Word Centre – the platform for language, literacy and literature based at Hawkwood College of which I am the volunteer co-ordinator – on World Book Day, we hosted a talk by our patron, Stroud-based writer Jamila Gavin. Jamila was born to a mixed-raced parentage* – an English mother and Indian father, who met as teachers in Iran – raised mainly in India until eleven when her family moved to England for good – and this ‘hybrid’ status has informed everything she has written, making her an important champion for multi-culturalism. Weened on a trunk of her mother’s English classics, which accompanied them on their many travels, Jamila initially trained as a pianist, but was a gifted letter-writer. Her childhood years were spent hopping from country to country, capital to capital – Paris, Berlin, London. This combination – of rounded education, cross-fertilisation of culture and polyglot articulacy – led to her working for the BBC as a Studio Manager. She married and raised her children Stroud where she has lived for forty years. Her first book was published in 1979 – The Magic Orange Tree – a collection of multi-cultural tales; and she has gone on to write an impressive range of children’s books, short stories, autobiography, plays, collections of myths and fairy tales, and contributions to anthologies supporting causes such as Greenpeace, and Human Rights. Her most recent work is a story for an anthology exploring the First World War, and her latest collection of magical tales, Blackberry Blue – a fairy story in the European tradition, but with a female protagonist of colour in the central role (to offer her grand-daughters a positive literary heroine they can relate to). Jamila’s best known work, Coram Boy, was adapted into a stage play by the National Theatre. Her stories have been broadcast on BBC Radio, and she has garnered several awards over her career.
And so we were extremely lucky to have her.
Despite the disappointingly low attendance she gave a fascinating talk provocatively titled ‘Why Read? Why Write?’ I managed to record most of it, and it is listenable via the links below. Afterwards, there were some good questions from the small, but engaged audience. I asked if there were any commonalities in her diverse oeuvre – ‘injustice’, she replied, the voices of the marginalised, racism, and a celebration of diversity. A second question of mine was – did her ‘hybrid’ status inform her writing in any way: ‘Absolutely,’ was her reply. I suggested that it gave her, as a writer, a distinct advantage – being able to relate to different traditions, to see beyond the provincial, to be an interlocutor, or, as I put it, a kind of ‘Suez Canal’ (as a child Jamila would travel between India and England by boat, a journey taking two and half weeks, although it would’ve taken a lot longer without the Suez Canal). She has been the bridge to link continents. She is a true transnational writer in the post-colonial tradition, and her work is more important than ever in a time of challenges to multicultural Britain by the likes of the BNP, EDF and UKip – a growing xenophobia fuelled by those wishing to exploit the banking crisis/Austerity-driven discontent. Jamila was gracious, generous and highly articulate – a pleasure to listen to and learn from. Any parent wishing to offer their children a healthy cross-section of fiction would do well to seek out Jamila’s work, as would anyone wishing to have a better understanding of multi-cultural Britain.
*as something of a global mongrel myself, this meti inbetween-ness is something that informs my own writing, especially my current novel project.
Listen to Jamila’s talks here…. (soon!)
Jamila Gavin author talk 6 March 2015 part 1
Jamila Gavin author talk 6 March 2015 part 2