Sandra Brown-Springer’s debut play Seb’s Soles was shortlisted for the Nick Darke Award for Playwriting, 2018. Sandra, who studies MA Creative Writing at Birkbeck, talks to Aisha Phoenix about the gentrification in Brixton that inspired the play, disruptive poetry and tokenism in the literary world.
Congratulations on having your play Seb’s Soles shortlisted for the Nick Darke Award for Playwriting. What inspired the play and what is it about?
I was doing the playwriting module last year with Colin Teevan, who is amazing, and he started the module saying, “You’re going to write a play in twelve weeks or ten weeks”. I really liked his attitude and his sort of gung-ho vibe. He was very practical. He was saying “write something that you care about. Something that means something to you and don’t be frightened of big issues.” When I was thinking what can I write about, several things came up. I’m a single parent, I know a lot about parenting. I have started a couple of plays previously, one about children from “broken homes”, but I didn’t feel like I wanted to revisit those two at the time. I like to do something fresh and I was thinking about the gentrification in Brixton, where I live, which is probably the same as everywhere else in London, but it feels really horrible in my town.
There is an issue around the arches under the railway track in Brixton. Network Rail has evicted some long-standing tenants. I thought there was something that I could do around that. The play is about a black family who set up a shop in Brixton in the sixties and they are in the arches and they are being evicted and how it plays out, what happens next. The play is quite layered because on the surface it seems that that’s what it’s about, but it’s really about secrets and family dynamics and how people sometimes live half a life.
When you say “live half a life”, can you expand on that?
Seb is the protagonist and owner of the shop and his wife is a woman called Jess. The play explores their relationship without really exploring their relationship. Their situation is always in the background, no matter what is happening in the foreground. Jess has left Seb and her absence is constantly being referred to throughout the play. It’s only been a few months. But this is a refrain that runs through the play. Seb keeps talking about her coming back. The play leaves the audience to expect her to come back and she does, but not in the way that you might expect her to.
That sounds intriguing. How did you come to submit the play for the award?
At the beginning of the year I made a promise to myself that I would try to submit at least five pieces a month and I was aiming for a hundred rejections a year. I read a blog that said that you should aim for a hundred rejections a year, which means you have to submit more than 100 because you want some to be accepted. I created an Excel sheet and I started to research submissions, competitions, magazines, but mainly competitions because I am cash poor and I’m looking at these things and there’s lots of money available. So I populated this spreadsheet with lots of competitions. I have submitted to over 40 so far this year and I have had some very nice rejections. I was longlisted for the Theatre503 award. After that I have had some really nice emails saying, “Make sure you apply again. We’ll put you on our writers’ list and you can get free tickets.” It makes you feel it’s definitely worth submitting.
The Nick Darke Award, I think I found it on the BBC Writers’ Room website and it’s free to enter. I saw that after I’d started writing the play and I thought, I’m going to submit to that and I did.
What did being shortlisted for the award mean to you?
I had to submit the play in May and I didn’t hear until September, so I’d completely forgotten about it. When I got the email… I was like, “Oh my God! What is this?” And I opened it and it was a wonderful feeling to know that the play’s actually quite good. I felt like I have finally arrived. Yes, I am a writer. Actually I am a playwright, okay! It was a real moment. I had a little bit of a cry. It was just a lovely feeling. I have never won or been shortlisted for anything literary before. Not in my adult life anyway. It was a lovely feeling.
What led you to start writing plays?
I really love writing and I want to explore the different mediums and the different ways of telling stories. I haven’t seen much theatre. I have only been a few times, but I do like the immediacy of the theatre and the way that the audience has to co-conspire with the actors. Yeah, we’re all going to pretend here. I like that and you can use that to mess with the audience’s expectations. I feel like there’s lots to explore and I don’t know much about the theatre, but that might be my thing. I thought that it was short stories, but it may well be theatre.
I have another play in the works and it is again set in Brixton, but it could be set anywhere.
When did you begin writing?
I started writing stories when I was about nine. I won the Dillons Young Readers Award when I was 10. Then I won the ACER’S Black Young Writers Competition in 1986 or 1987, when I was 12. That’s the last thing I won. I stopped writing then. My life got a bit crazy. I had my daughter when I was 18 and then I started writing again – little bits and pieces when I was in my 20s. I didn’t really start writing again until I was in my 30s.
I noticed on Twitter that you have done some performances with your daughter. Is she a poet?
Yes. She is a published poet. She has had a collection of poems published by her writing collective Six Weeks. She’s also writing a novel. She’s been writing the novel for the last four or five years. She’s 26. I’m really proud of my daughter. We did a performance together at UCL last Friday, themed “disruption”. So we read some disruptive poetry and yeah, it was quite fun.
It was disruptive because we speak about things that women normally don’t often talk about and to be more specific that black women speak about even less frequently. We talk about violence, sexual violence. We talk about gender issues. We talk about sexuality. We talk about racism, which is not such a silent topic nowadays. I think my opening poem, the first line is “I want to be white”, which is quite radical and disruptive.
Can you talk about that poem?
I wrote that poem about six or eight years ago. Like most of my poetry I didn’t really know what it was about, but now I understand it. It’s a poem that asks the reader or listener to think about the refrain, “I want to be white”. I am asking people to think about what whiteness is, what it does and how it functions. When I wrote it I am not sure that I was really conscious of those things myself, but it is something that was troubling me, something that I wanted to explore and understand. That’s what I use writing for, to explore things and to understand things and to vent.
Have you had your poetry published?
I haven’t, no. I’m working on a collection of poetry, but I’m also working on a collection of short stories. The poetry is going to take a backseat for a while because I want to get the stories out first.
What led you to study MA Creative Writing at Birkbeck?
My daughter’s partner identified the Kit De Waal scholarship. I was depressed and my daughter was trying to think of ways to make me happy, so her partner came up with this MA. So I applied. The first time I applied my application didn’t go through, so I re-applied the next year and my application went through and I was successful.
Why did you choose the poetry module this year?
I’ve been writing poetry semi-seriously for 15 years, but I’ve never done a poetry course, or class or workshop. That was why I chose poetry because I like poetry and I want to see what I can learn. I know that I have issues about form. I write in blank verse most of the time and I have attempted a sonnet in the past and not been successful. In my first lesson, we were asked to write a sonnet and a really good sonnet has come out of that. So I’m really happy with the progress.
Who are your favourite poets?
At the moment I’m re-reading Audre Lorde, “Your Silence Will Not Protect You”. She’s amazing. All her work sounds like it was written yesterday. Everything applies to now. I also read Alice Walker.
Is depicting diversity important to you as a black writer?
Diversity is important. It’s important to show different people from different places. I feel like as a black woman I want to show difference.
Why is it important to show difference?
Because it represents the world that we live in and everyone’s not the same. It’s really important that all our stories show that. I have made a point of ensuring that my children have friends from all sections of the community. It’s really important that people understand that difference is okay. Just because that person over there is different from you doesn’t mean that you’re better than them or that they’re better than you, they’re just different. We can be different and equal.
What do you think of the current state of diversity in literature?
It’s bad. Because there’s not much diversity out there we have this tokenism thing happening, which really upsets me. A writer will come along with a book and perhaps the book could do with a little more work, but instead of that happening, people will say, “Look at this thing that this person has created. Isn’t it marvellous!” As if they are amazed that a black person could produce anything written at all. I hate it. It makes me feel ill.
Books by BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) authors should be given the editorial time and space they deserve to develop into the best versions they can be, rather than editors sending the work out “half-clothed”, i.e. with the mechanics of the story exposed.
You’re not the first person I’ve heard make that point.
I am so glad. I don’t want to be controversial, but I feel that’s what it is. It really upset me …because I am sure that if this person was white you wouldn’t do that. You would say, “Okay, there’s this, this and this that might need a little bit of tweaking.” It’s so frustrating because I’ve worked with MIR 15. I’ve been an editor. I know what the editorial process looks like. You can see that with just a little bit of work, this book could have been fixed and this would have been a great story.
Do you think the agenda there is not wanting to invest in black writers because editors don’t value them?
I haven’t really thought about that. I don’t know. But could it be a ploy to show that we’re giving these people a chance, but look what they produce? I don’t know what it is, but that could be a thing. I don’t want to be pessimistic, but I have to question it because it’s not just one or two things. It happened the other day. I read an extract from this “wonderful” book and I thought, nobody talks like that and you’re going to put it up here and say it’s this, that and the other. You’re failing the writer and I feel like you’re trying to make us as a community look stupid.
There are some amazing black writers out there. Find them. If you can’t fix these people’s work, then go out there and find the amazing black writers because we are here. We are out here. It’s disheartening. It really is.
What do you think about current opportunities for writers of colour?
It seems to be a hot topic at the moment. I don’t know how long that will last. Penguin’s doing their “WriteNow” thing. Kit de Waal, Nikesh (Shukla) and Sharmaine Lovegrove are pushing for diversity in the arts. There’s a campaign going on, which is brilliant.
What obstacles, if any, do you think writers of colour face?
Racism. People thinking that we can only write about being black and that that supersedes our humanity. Self-confidence, that’s often a big barrier for us. Because we are not really visible we might have our own problems putting ourselves forward because we feel like certain spaces are not for us. Sometimes we self-censor and that’s a problem.
Have you experienced any issues as a black writer?
I try not to let my insecurities stop me from pitching or submitting to anywhere because I am fully aware that some people don’t want work from people like me and some people have preconceived ideas about my abilities because of my skin, which of course is ridiculous. I try not to think about that. I submit where I want to submit and see what happens. There are a lot of fools out there, but there are a lot of good people out there too and sometimes we can be our own worst enemies when we’re being pessimistic. It’s good to be positive and just keep pushing.
Are there any ways in which being a black writer has been an advantage in your literary career so far?
Thus far, I don’t think so. The only thing I can think of is that the recent reading I did with my daughter wouldn’t have come about if I was white. It was part of Black History Month at “Out@UCL”. I’m a lesbian and so is my daughter. I’m part of “Out@UCL”. They know that I write and I’m always talking about my daughter because I’m very proud of her, so they know about her so they invited us to come and read.
Is there enough diversity in terms of writing about different sexualities in literature?
If there is, I’m not aware of it and I want to do something to address that. I have written specifically queer love stories because I have very recently come out and I think part of the reason I wasn’t able to do that previously is because there is very low visibility in the black community for queer people or for queer women at least. I have a male gay black friend. We’ve been friends for a long time, but in terms of women it didn’t exist in my world. Even when my daughter came out as gay I was like, black people don’t do these things, which is really ridiculous because we do.
Did your daughter come out before you?
She did. I like to say that she pulled me kicking and screaming out of the closet. She kept saying to me, “You’re a lesbian.” She knew long before I let myself be conscious of what I wanted.
Earlier, you mentioned helping to edit Mechanics Institute Review, issue 15. How did you find that process? And did you have any favourite stories?
The process of editing was such a learning curve. I signed up for it because I love reading and I was eager to learn about the process of making a book from the beginning to the end. I didn’t expect there to be quite as much reading as there was. We had to read each story three times. It became a heavy load because I was studying and working, and the kids, and I had all these stories to read and edit, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. I learnt so much. I am now a ruthless editor of my own work. I am sure that that process helped me with editing my play.
My favourite stories are Annie Lowe, “Margaret’s Day Out”; “Growth”; “Fuck you”; Causeway” … There are so many that are stuck in my head. I could keep going on. Now that I have got the book and I’ve read the contributors’ stories, there’s one by Leone Ross – “Meat”. It’s unbelievable.
How do you juggle work, studying creative writing, being a writer and being a parent?
It’s just been my life. An older sister in a West Indian family is a workhorse. I’ve always been a carer. Luckily they understand that I need my time. I go to my room, I close my door, I read and I write, that’s what I do. I write a lot at night. I read whenever I can. On the bus, on the train, at night, at the dinner table. It’s part of my life. It’s what I do.