In 2016, Stripes (an imprint of the Little Tiger group), published I’ll be Home for Christmas, an anthology of new short stories and poetry on the theme of ‘Home’; £1 from every copy sold went to the charity Crisis. This year they have devised, with similar integrity and ingenuity, A Change Is Gonna Come. In a prefatory note, they say, “The purpose of this anthology is to give creative space to those who have historically had their thoughts, ideas and experiences oppressed.”
Stripes had in mind Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) writers of short stories and poems. They began by inviting eight established writers to respond – free from editorial constraints – to the theme of ‘Change’. They also wanted to give that “creative space” to new voices; getting published is hard enough, but Stripes believe it is even harder for writers from minority backgrounds. In response to the publisher’s “call for work from unpublished and unagented writers”, there were over 100 submissions, from which four stories were selected. In their effort to encourage diversity in publishing, Stripes also provided a placement for a “talented future editor to get real experience of the book-publishing process”. Aa’Ishah Hawton worked alongside Editorial Director Ruth Bennett throughout the process, from the selection and editing of manuscripts to the production of the final book.
The range of the writers’ family origins (included in notes about the authors) is more interestingly diverse than the acronym BAME can reflect: “…born in North London to Nigerian parents”; “her dad was from Jamaica and her mum was Welsh”; “her mother was Guyanese and her father was Irish”; “born in Leicester to an Indian father and Pakistani mother”; “part Indian and part Jewish”. The poet Musa Okwonga “was born in London to Ugandan parents and is now based in Berlin”, but most of the writers seem to live in London or elsewhere in Southern England; there is no reference within the stories to Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic experiences in the industrial areas of the North or the rest of the UK. That’s more a regret than a criticism, since there is much to admire in the anthology’s quality of content and narrative styles. With the sense of responsibility characteristic of this book’s creation, Stripes include a final page which lists topics covered along with resources for any reader who might be “worried about coming across something that is particularly upsetting to you”. I’ll use that list to indicate the range of issues the stories implicitly address: bereavement, Islamophobia, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, racism, refugees, sexuality, terrorism. The list could also have included Brexit and immigration, for that issue destroys a best-friendship in Nikesh Shukla’s “We Who?” Since Change is at the core of the collection, it’s not surprising that the settings explore past, present and future: Catherine Johnson’s tale involves circus performers in the early 19th Century (based on a historical character); there are stories from our own times set in Nigeria, the Calais Jungle and Hackney and dystopias from Irfan Master and Patrice Lawrence.
In his Foreword, Darren Chetty, drawing on his 20 years’ service in London classrooms, notes that “the range of books for children is still too narrow and doesn’t reflect the country or the world in which we live. But, although it’s been a long time coming, this is beginning to change.” He mentions a child in his class who thought “stories have to be about white people”. This book should shift such a perspective but the difficulty lies, as BfK readers know, in persuading teachers and librarians to use their limited funds and time to introduce non-BAME readers to such an anthology. Since the book is intended to be a means of Change in itself, Stripes and their contributors deserve every success.