Introducing the Women of Windrush
On Monday 25 June the British Library in association with Wasafiri, the Magazine of International Contemporary writing, will be hosting Windrush Women: Past and Present. When the Empire Windrush sailed from the Caribbean 70 years ago, there were 257 female passengers on board, 188 of whom were travelling alone. There are many stories missing from the Windrush narrative, not least those of bold and pioneering women, leaving everything behind, to better their own and their familyâs lives. This evening of poetry and readings will launch the latest issue of Wasafiri, which features a special section on Windrush women from across the generations.
Wasafiri's Editor-in-Chief, Susheila Nasta, says: âFor better or worse, the stories of the post-war Windrush generation have become more than evident in recent months. Though little known, there were women on board the SS Windrush as well as the other boats that sailed after the second world war. The experiences of the women were as varied as their ages and backgrounds. Join Wasafiri, the Magazine of International Contemporary writing, to hear the voices of Windrush women across the generations and find out more about their lives as well as the complex challenges they continue to faceâ.
Appearing with Susheila on Monday will be Valerie Bloom, Jay Bernard, Maria del Pilar Kaladeen, Alison Donnell, Hannah Lowe, Catherine Ross and Susheila Nasta. Tickets are still available from the British Library Box Office. As an introduction to Mondayâs event, we are publishing here an excerpt from Susheila Nastaâs editorial from Wasafiri No 94.
If this whets your appetite for Caribbean womenâs writing, there is more to see (and hear) in the Libraryâs free exhibition Windrush: Songs in a Stange Land which continues in the Entrance Hall Gallery until 21 October. On display are Beryl Gilroyâs long-lost manuscript for her novel In Praise of Love and Children (1996), Andrea Levyâs working drafts of Small Island (2004) and Jean Rhysâ revisions to Wide Sargasso Sea (1966); plus migration memoirs from Floella Benjamin and Verona Pettigrew and performances by poets Louise Bennett (reading her brilliant patois poem âDry Foot Bwoyâ about a haughty Caribbean man putting on an upper class English accent), Grace Nichols, Hannah Lowe, Maggie Harris, Kim OâLoughlin, Marsha Prescod and Merle Collins. These literary legacies of Windrush are interspersed with recordings of Caribbean women speaking about all aspects of their lives, from working in the NHS to the difficulties of courting in England compared with back home, and music too â there is much in the exhibition to investigate, explore and be inspired by.
Excerpt from Wasafiri No 94 (2018):
âHistory, as James Baldwin once famously observed is not the story of the past but the present. Coinciding with the seventieth anniversary of the docking of SS Empire Windrush at Tilbury in June 1948, this issue shows us how the many global intersections of Britainâs mixed cultural past continue to reverberate in todayâs migrant present. When Andrea Levyâs award-winning historical novel, Small Island, first appeared in 2004, it was applauded for its fictional portraits of the forgotten voices of âWindrushâ, for bringing the nationâs post-war migrant history centre stage and its timely intervention into what had largely been a male founding narrative of arrival and settlement. Reviewers were often unaware of earlier Caribbean and black British fictions of this era; whether classics, such as The Lonely Londoners (Sam Selvon, 1956), The Emigrants (George Lamming, 1954) or, more significantly here, given the objective of our special section focussing on âWindrush womenâ, Beryl Gilroyâs belatedly published 1950s novel, In Praise of Love and Children (1994). Despite such gaps, the appearance of Small Island was significant; not only was Levy, herself a daughter of Windrush, presenting her story through a range of narratives â male and female, Caribbean, Irish â but its engaging depiction of Britainâs diverse migrant histories began to touch a wide public readership â I once saw over five people reading the paperback version in one carriage on the London Underground just after the novelâs winning of the Orange Prize was announced. Interestingly Levyâs title, which playfully signalled Britainâs shrinking post-war global status â once âgreatâ empire, now âsmall islandâ â was not only powerfully ironic but remains prescient, especially given ongoing Brexit debates over a decade later around âEnglishnessâ, national identity, the rights of belonging or leave to stay. There is no doubt, as Grace Aneiza Ali and many of the other contributors to this issue differently observe, that migration continues to be the âdefining moment of the modern eraâ and âfewâ can be âuntouchedâ by its âsweeping narrativeâ.
âHighlighting the diversity of the period of migration following âWindrushâ and looking within and outside the parameters of what still figures as a powerfully constructed icon, this issue brings together Caribbean and black British voices from across the generations. Loosely defined here as the âWomen of Windrushâ, our special section comprises a range of genres and a mix representing the contemporary writing and works from past generations. It is a small sample which is by no means representative or comprehensive. Hannah Loweâs feature-interview with three contemporary poets (Grace Nichols, Karen McCarthy-Woolf and Jay Bernard) points to the icon of âWindrushâ as âthat huge fiction of a shipâ (Jackie Kay), a fiction which continues regardless to impact on many imaginations. In interrogating the enduring legacy of this myth, we feature an extract from Beryl Gilroyâs pioneering novel, In Praise of Love and Children, as well as providing the transcription of two interviews, originally conducted at the ICA in 1986, to celebrate the publication of Gilroyâs Frangipani House and a first novel, Timepiece by Janice Shinebourne. Like the 2004 moment when Levyâs Small Island was first published, the mid-1980s was a critical period for the publication of black and Asian womenâs writing in Britain. Publishers influenced by the success of African-American writing in the US began to see the migrant black experience in Britain as a potentially profitable market. And it was at this moment that adventurous publishers such as Virago and the Womenâs Press began to commission anthologies such as the groundbreaking Watchers and Seekers (edited by Rhonda Cobham and Merle Collins, Womenâs Press, 1987).This volume of stories, essays and poems, featuring only the work of women, included, amongst many others, now well-known writers such as Collins herself, Amryl Johnson (who sadly died in Britain in 2001), Meiling Jin and Valerie Bloom. Above all, it was a moment when black women writing in Britain began to get the long-awaited recognition they deserved. Too often anthologised or out of print, the many women who contributed to such vital anthologies are not always remembered. Moreover, as Maria del Pilar Kaladeenâs memoir âWindrushedâ painfully evokes, amnesia was generated not only from without, but from within, as some of the older generation chose to sidestep their own histories, shrouding their own pasts from their black British offspring.â