We spoke to Katy Massey, editor of the Tangled Roots, an anthology of mixed race life writing from Britain. The annual Tangled Roots edition brings together over 30 writers to answer the question: What is life like for mixed families in Britain today?
1. You were a freelance journalist before you brought your creative writing to the forefront through an MA and Phd in Creative Writing. Your doctoral thesis treated the topic of life writing from a mixed race perspective. Did a scarcity in mixed-race representation motivate your entry into creative writing?
I’m afraid not! I was a journalist who wanted to be a creative writer for many years, but I always knew I wanted to write creative non-fiction. My idols growing up were the ‘new journalists’ of the 1980s. I started with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Tom Wolf, and the non-fiction writings of Norman Mailer and Martin Amis (The Moronic Inferno in particular). I thought that being a journalist would be the most interesting thing I could do. Finance wasn’t quite so exciting but boom and bust did give me some perspective. Two books in the international payment system taught me the discipline to sit down at my desk everyday. My PhD came from the realisation that mixed race families were not very well understood within British culture – particularly their wide variety of ethnic and social blends – and, if this is true, how is the mixed person’s lived experience understood by the British reader? Can it be properly understood?
2. Your organisation, Tangled Roots, publishes anthologies of life writing from mixed race people. What is the importance of cataloguing the mixed race experience?
There are mixed characters in literary fiction, including famously of course Clara in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. She has really gone on to define what is meant by the ‘multicultural’ figure in literature. In popular fiction too, there are some mixed characters. For example, John le Carre uses a mixed race character to explore the involvement of western governments in the Congo in The Mission Song. But, as this is fiction, the characters have particular characteristics, eg in le Carre, the mixed race spy Salvo is a cultural ‘translator’ and troubled by his mixed background (but then his father is a fallen Catholic priest…). I believe that Smith’s Clara, and young people like her, have come to represent ‘newness’ in literature, a symbol of ‘modernity’ which the narrative of the Olympic opening ceremony amplified. In fiction, a character’s racial identity has to mean something, whereas in real life, I have found that an individual’s racial identity might be very important to them, but equally, it might really be quite meaningless. Their other roles in life (mother, working professional, footballer, whatever) could be what they feel really defines them.
So, this is the explanation for why I started Tangled Roots: after my PhD I still had some questions I wanted to ask. Like, how can mixed race people be ‘new’ when we have been here at least since the fourth century AD? Is race really as important to an individual’s self-identity – and their everyday life experience – as people in positions of power would have us believe? (Judging by the horrible aftermath of the London Mayoral elections, I am thinking not…) And, I thought that if I asked mixed race people to write about their own lives, rather than read fiction about mixed race people, perhaps I could start answering them!
3. Do you think publishing these stories as books, rather than online or in a magazine, has any effect on the public’s reception of the stories?
The project has so far resulted in two books of anthologies of life writing by members of mixed families. Sadly, they are not annual – we exist because the Arts Council kindly granted the funding, and I don’t know if it will again! We also managed to produce our website with a visual history of mixed people in Britain (www.tangledroots.eu), a live literature tour – you can see the performance here- – which included a visit to the 2014 Critical Mixed Race conference to talk and perform in Chicago and, most importantly, published around fifty accounts of the real lives of mixed families in Britain from both acclaimed writers (Sarfraz Manzoor, Bernardine Evaristo, Hannah Low) and talented amateurs. And yes, the books are important – the printed long form is still associated with long-lasting ideas and high-quality writing, much more so than the internet and e-books – but, having said that, it’s all important. The website had to have added value, so I asked senior diaspora history researcher Audrey Dewjee to contribute her best images to create a visual history of mixed people in the UK. The live performance features three professional performers and a professionally adapted script. I even try to make our tweets interesting! This is because we want to engage with our audience in as many ways as possible – and be as informative, entertaining and non-judgmental as we can while doing so. I suppose I wanted to create a conversation where no one is afraid to take part and everyone can be heard.
4. The issue of community is mentioned often in discussions about mixed race lives. Do you feel the Tangled Roots anthologies and other mixed-race focused projects will work towards blurring the lines of ethnically segregated communities in Britain?
The UK is not a racially segregated country in any meaningful way. In 2005, the former head of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Philips, warned that the UK was sleepwalking its way to segregation on a US scale. More than ten years on, there is little evidence that his panic was justified. In fact, outside troubled inner-city enclaves of cities like Oldham, Bradford and Burnley – where riots took place in 2001 – census evidence suggests that non-white city dwellers are likely to want to move from the inner cities and out to the suburbs as they earn more, like their white counterparts. Mixed families are a symbol of the divisions between communities becoming more porous, but some ethnic groups are much more likely to enter into mixed relationships than others!
5. Is there anything you think the publishing industry, and the public at large, need to learn about mixed race families?
Twelve percent of households in the UK are mixed. This is a huge number and I’d be very grateful – as a reader as much as anything else – if just some books were published in which issues like race and ethnicity and – well, the whole beautiful disorganised jumble of humanity – just got to breathe, and exist in all their wonderful chaos. Instead, in every contemporary novel I pick up, every individual involved is so upset all the time, about their identity and/or status in life. I think some of us who look a little different are suffering from all of the worrying around race that happens (in the media, in politics, in office meeting rooms…). Sometimes I get tired of all the angst and stress coming from editors and publishers in the industry as well as the characters in the books. We have a sense of humour too!