Shameful (non) self-promotion

CW: confidence issues, mental health, the world.

Last week, I was talking on the phone with my DSA mental health mentor. She was asking me how I was doing with my dissertation proposal, and I told her in honesty that I hadn’t had the opportunity to work on it in the past couple of weeks: I was too busy dealing with Covid-19 aftercare at home; juggling with survival, brain fog and fatigue; proofreading typesetting for my book; and so on. She then stopped me in my tracks and, barely containing her excitement, she jolted:

— YOU HAVE A BOOK?!

Mood. Image: Michael Poley for AllGo via Unsplashed.

I was puzzled. I have been speaking to this mentor since May 2019. By then, my proposal for a poetry collection had already been accepted by the publishing house, and I was attempting to edit previous work and write new material during a human relationship crisis. I was sure I had told her about the book several times before, but maybe she had forgotten. I shrugged and replied:

— Yes? Of my poetry?
— I didn’t know you had that in you!

Basically, because of the social and professional repercussions of said crisis that May, I had lost all opportunities of creative interaction and friendships in all but one aspect of my life. This was the poetry scene. For almost a year, I would only leave the house to go to university and to go to spoken word events. My mentor certainly knew about this, didn’t she? There were times I would head straight to the pub, coffee house or theatre where a poetry workshop or open mic would take place right after our meetings. I must have told her in one of those “what are you doing for the rest of the day?” farewell chats.

— Really? It’s basically all that I do. I would go to the open mics right after uni.
— Well, congratulations! Tell me when it comes out, so I can get a signed copy!

I should have been flattered, but I was confused. How could she not know about the things that kept me alive? A lot of our sessions involved time management, bullet journalling and planning the week ahead, hour by hour. Several of those hours had to do with writing, listening and sharing poetry – especially, The Book. How did she not know? I must have spoken about nothing but The bloody Book, hadn’t I.

Image: Giovanna Gomes via Unsplash.

Sometime last year, I was having a pint with a few fellow friends and poets before one of our favourite open mics. I had arrived in advance after one of these mentoring sessions at uni, so I spent the time in between writing new work. I told this to my colleagues, expecting they would understand, and one of them interjected:

— That book’s been coming on for a while, hasn’t it.

Translation: “are you talking about The bloody Book again? Get over it. No one cares”.

My reaction. Image: Navabi stock photos.

I felt self-conscious and sad. This person was still friends with the people who had made it impossible for me to do anything else in this town. I didn’t want to lose my last remaining den of security, now with cracks in the ceiling. I stopped talking about the book altogether.

Mind you, this person won’t stop advertising his self-published poetry zines and recordings to anyone with willing eyes and ears. I was stealing his spotlight and taking way too much space on the table. So, I chose to be quiet until the publishing date was closer, and I had to speak about it. But I have lost practice and I am scared.

Around the same time I had that awkward interaction with my DSA mentor, I had posted a recommendation quote for the book in a way to advertise it across my social media platforms. Again, I received a few congratulations from people who did not know I was being published soon. Bear in mind, I had advertised the initial news about being included in the publishing house’s roster for upcoming releases, the news about the title and synopsis made official, and the unveiling of the album cover. A lot of the people congratulating had known me for several years, or at least I thought. Again, it had perplexed me that they had just found out. Have I been this quiet?

Also mood. Image: Navabi stock photos.

Maybe they have other things to think about and notice. After all, we are in the middle of a pandemic, an economic crisis, and the brink of civil war wherever you are reading this. I know I am not the centre of the universe, and neither are other writers, and I should be grateful for any speck of attention. Especially now, and after that pileup last year.

Either way, I wish I had an assistant and a street/online team who did the advertisement for me and spare me from feeling like an arsehole regardless of how little or how much I do.

Screenshots from Amazon, Waterstones and Foyles.

My assistant and team would tell you now that Meanwhile, my debut poetry collection, is now available for presale on Amazon, Waterstones and Foyles. They will also warn you not to buy it from these platforms because in the publishing houses and authors get peanuts from sales on these big websites; and they would encourage you to wait until it is available on the Burning Eye Books website and on my own store for presale.

My PR/assistant team would release it on presale right away, come up with ideas and bundles, encourage me to release a mailing list or whatever, and they would whack me with a stick if I replied “The bloody Book again? Get over it. No one cares”. But I’m tired of people who say they know me telling me they didn’t know I was a writer when it’s literally the only thing I can do; and equally tired of privileged white guys telling me to shut up and let them blabber a bit more about their vanity rags.

Leicester Writes Festival

leicesterwrites-logo

A brave little writing festival happened during the last weekend of June. It was brand new and modest, but full of illusions and aiming to fill in the gaps in our local and national literature scene. And it succeeded.

Leicester Writes Festival was conceived by Farhana Shaikh from Dahlia Publishing as a way to showcase the microcosmic and diverse writing scene in our city and connect all of us as colleagues and potential friends. “Leicester” might not be a word that comes out from the general public’s mouths when talking about writing scenes and communities, but there is something big happening and it can keep developing only and if only we are aware of it and stay connected.

Damien G Walter. Picture:  twitter.
Damien G Walter. Picture: twitter.

The festival began on Thursday 25 June at Leicester University’s fairly new Centre of New Writing. It was a pecha kucha presentation about literature development in Leicester, condensing the answers that many writers in the area gave to a survey that was filled in in advance. Later that night, on that massive venue called twitter, there was a Q&A with Damien Walter, one of the first columnists to pay attention to indie writers and publishers in the digital era. Throught the hashtag #AskDamienW, he answered in a clear and honest way to several enquires about online publishing and offering alternatives to mainstream outlets like Amazon, “not the writers friend, but […] a business that presents big opportunities if you are savvy”. One of the plans he suggested was to join Patreon and build a fanbase with exclusive online content in exchange for regular income. Something worth checking out.

Jacob Ross. Picture: The Word Factory.
Jacob Ross. Picture: The Word Factory.

Friday was more “in the flesh”, back to Leicester Uni for edifying masterclasses. I was fortunate enough to attend The Art of Short Writing, a morning masterclass hosted by Jacob Ross. Delicious, juicy and visceral. We had to read works in preparation to see how something as brief as a short story could hit you harder than more extensive pieces of literature. Stories by Olive Senior, Mark Hanks, Elise Muller, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Patrick O’Brian and Carys Davies; authors from different walks of life, bringing their realities into our worlds, sometimes harsh, sometimes witty, always like punches to the stomach. To Ross, short stories are meant to be singular, economical, with one dominant result or outcome, and an implied story arch inferring that nothing will be the same. Above all, short stories must have truth and integrity, blend the different with the usual and convince the reader that this can happen, even if it’s fiction.

Saturday and Sunday at the Phoenix were just busy, busy, busy. I will only speak about the events I attended, as they were so many of them and I have heard they were all fantastic.

Kerry Young. Picture: Leicester Writes.

Kerry Young and Rod Duncan spoke about writers on writing. Young comes from a youth worker background, and she writes not as therapy, but as a voice for those who can’t speak. Her novel Pao may have earned her a seat in the pavilion of contemporary literature, but it took her many years of discipline and crafting to become “an overnight success”.

Rod Duncan. Picture: Leicester Writes.

Duncan is still taken aback by the how fast his reputation has changed: he has gone from hopeless waster to promising new voice and respected novelist; with his Bullet Catcher’s Daughter as a finalist for the 2014 Phillip K. Dick award. However, he doesn’t write for external validation but for internal improvement. Just like characters have inner and outer journeys based on what they achieve in and out of themselves, writers have inner and outer journeys. The inner journey is what motivates us to write.

Bali Rai. Picture: Help for Writers
Bali Rai. Picture: Help for Writers.

Bali Rai was another novelist sharing his journey and results. A lot of his comments were sharp reflections on the general unspoken theme of the festival: unprivileged voices navigating a circuit full of privileged shouting. Growing up, he struggled to find books about the multicultural life he lived in Leicester, and all he found was the Adrian Mole series by Sue Townsend. After briefly living in London and spending his Odeon wages on Brixton bookshops, he came back to write about what he knew and to continue the Townsend tradition of putting Leicester on the map. Through the years, he has noticed that “the concept of diversity is [being] hijacked by the white middle class”, and that “the voices least heard in literature are the voices least heard in society”. That’s why he keeps writing about life in the city, making his voice and those of his neighbours heard, speaking about the true colours of modern-day Britain.

Divya Ghelani. Picture: Kajal Nisha Patel.
Divya Ghelani. Picture: Kajal Nisha Patel.

We moved briefly to the Curve to see Divya Ghelani read her “Imperial Typewriter”, a story created exclusively for the Hidden Stories compilation and part of a multimedia project about the past and present of the Cultural Quarter. It’s a story about rebellion, dignity and trying to rewrite history as it happens. Ghelani is an intriguing storyteller, and listening to her narration transports you right to where the events took place — not far from the theatre, actually. Also, as someone who wasn’t alive nor here when the Imperial Typewriter strike happened, it was appalling to see the way people back in those days referred to Asian Ugandans and foreigners in general. To think that the smell of curry they certainly despised would take over town and actually turn it into one of the most attractive things about this place…

Speaking of which, An Indian Summer was happening during the same week and spreading its wonders, colours and flavours. Many talks and panels for Leicester Writes Festival were brought in association with AIS, including the audience with Bali Rai, Divya Ghelani’s reading and Nikesh Shukla’s keynote on being a contemporary novelist.

Nikesh Shukla. Picture: Catherine Dunn.
Nikesh Shukla. Picture: Catherine Dunn.

I was particularly excited to see Nikesh Shukla on Sunday, as his Meatspace speaks to my soul in ways people like Nick Hornby or Douglas Coupland never will. He slaps you in the face with truth and gets your arse into action. Some of his points on how to be a writer include jewels like “aspire to nothing”. If your twitter bio says you’re an “aspiring writer”, delete the “aspiring” bit. You are a writer, because you write. Social media is not the enemy, but a tool that can be used to share your exciting news and create a following. Another thing Shukla mentioned, to destroy the stereotype of the “starving artist”, was that there was nothing wrong with having a 9-to-5 job and being a writer — he personally thinks being a barista is where it’s at. But where do you take the time? Josie Long’s Golden Game seems like a good solution: write 90 minutes a day. I should try it. We should try it.

Really needed this today. ❤ #validation #meatspace

A photo posted by Cynthia Rodríguez Barni (@cynstagrammy) on

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For a first edition, Leicester Writes Festival was quite complete and exciting. It brought us together and not only established links within the writers community, but between cultural and geographical communities in general. There were people who came from places like London or Glasgow, and they had never seen anything like this before. This sense of union and equality is what sets us apart from larger cities that may call themselves “cosmopolitan” but are all about hierarchy, elitism and segregation. Here there are no secrets and no crabs-in-a-bucket mentality. No one-ups. Just mutual support. There may be few people who still behave like prima donnas, want all the credit for themselves even on team work and don’t support anyone but their niche little friends, yes. But those people do not belong here.