Tag Archives: Black Britain Writing Back

Dat’s Love by Leonora Brito

This collection of twelve stories originally appeared in 1995, but we have Bernardine Evaristo and Penguin Books to thank for their reappearance, together with two later stories, in the Black Britain Writing Back series.This innovative publishing project has brought several neglected Black British writers to readers’ attention. I recently reviewed Minty Alley by CLR James (link here) and I look forward to reading more from the series.

Dat’s Love

The variety in this small collection is astonishing. It is in the subject matter, the style, the length, the narrative structure, the voice, and the settings of the stories. I can’t help wondering what else she had in her files that she did not put forward for publication.

The stories are exuberant, a little wild, often inventive. Many of them are narrated by or from the point of view of young people, girls, and some by historical characters. Here for example, in a very dull setting, is a young girl from the story called Michael Miles has Teeth like a Broken-down Picket Fence:

It was November. The girl looked up at the cloudy sky and sighed like a housewife disappointed in the whiteness of her wash. Mine looks grey, she thought, using the voice of the woman on the advert as she walked along. That was what was meant by November, that time of year when all the colours had drained away by the third week and the world was left in black and white – no monochrome, she thought, preferring that word because it had more grey in it. Not much of black or white there wasn’t, when you had a look. She thought obscurely of cameras and washing machines and vacuum cleaners and fashionable clothing: they were all the same grey tones in the magazine pictures that showed them. Only the covers on the front were in colour. She expanded the word ‘monochrome’ until it fitted everything in it: ‘monochromatic’ was the word. It fitted everything. The girl turned her head and waited to cross to the bus stop on the other side of the road.
She saw the dog as she hurried across. (19)

It was a particular day, dreary as all days were: November 22nd 1963, hardly a monochrome day in world politics. I felt that Leonora Brito captured the greyness of the time, how young people wanted more from the world and their lives. It did not arrive for some time.

In a first-person narrative, a young woman reports about hospital staff ‘when it was over they gave me a doll.’ This is in a short story called Mother Country. The narrator rejects the idea that she is holding ‘a real doll’.

Who are you trying to fool? I asked the one standing in for the midwife, crossly. ‘A real doll!’ This, I shook my head and pointed, is not a real doll. Real dolls have short, chubby legs. Legs made out of laminated plastic; that stay up in the air when you push them up, and don’t just flop like these do. I gestured contemptuously. And another thing, I picked up one of its hands to demonstrate, the fingers and toes of a real doll are always stuck together, while these can be s-e-p-a-r-a-t-e-d out! (42)

Mother Country describes the transition from childhood to womanhood, from rejection of this new being to acceptance, from the trauma of childbirth and the infantilising words of the nurses to a visceral mother-baby bond. 

Leonora Brito was not afraid of playing around with narrative structure. The story called Dido Elizabeth Belle: a narrative of her life (extant) starts in the middle of the action. The narrator is a formerly enslaved young woman who was the great niece of Lord Mansfield, and she grew up in Kenwood House. But we hear a different side to her history in Leonora Brito’s account. She is running away through the woods and meets a man. His reactions and thoughts are interpolated with hers. It’s like the cinematic split-screen, and it works well.

Many of the stories are rooted in Cardiff, such as Digging for Victory set in 1955 when Mr Churchill visited the docks in his warship. Instead of hero worship the story turns into a celebration of community spirit as the great ship had caused the canal to empty and people were needed to lend a hand and deal with the damage.

Many of the most effective stories use children’s or young people’s voices with their naïve point of view. Music and popular songs of the time are also used in many stories, including the title story. Her titles are also delightful.

Leonora Brito

Leonora Brito

Leonora Brito was born in Cardiff in July 1954. Her mother was local and her father was a seaman from Cap Verde. She took some time to find her voice, studying law and history at Cardiff University, and eventually moving into writing for radio and tv, and her short stories. She won the Rhys Davis Short Story Prize in 1991 and it gave her the confidence to become a full-time writer. Dat’s Love was published in 1995 and was well-received and a second collection was commissioned, but Leonora died in June 2007 before it was completed. Sadly, given how good they are, we just have these 14 stories to admire.

Dat’s Love by Leonora Brito, first published in 1995 and republished by Penguin in 2023 in Black Britain Writing Back series. 169pp 

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Minty Alley by CLR James 

It was with interest that I noted the recommendations made by Bernardine Evaristo to Penguin for the Black Britain Writing Back series. Twelve books have been republished in this series after being neglected for far too long. The novel featured in this post is from eight decades ago and shows a community in Trinidad. 

Bernardine Evaristo introduces each volume, and she explains the intention of the publishing initiative:

Our ambition is to correct historic bias in British publishing and bring a wealth of lost writing back into circulation. While many of us continue to lobby for the publishing industry to become more inclusive and representative of our society, this project looks back to the past in order to resurrect texts that will help reconfigure black British literary history. [Penguin website]

I plan to read more from the collection over the next few months.

Minty Alley

The novel is set in Port of Spain, capital of Trinidad in the late 1920s. CLR James spent his childhood here. A young man of 20, Mr Haynes, has been brought up in affluence but when his mother dies, he has to move to new accommodation. Haynes is pretty naïve and ignorant of the ways of the world, but he is helped by Ella, the family servant. She finds lodgings for him at 2 Minty Alley. His life has been quiet up to this point. Now, looking out at the courtyard of Minty Alley from his rented room he sees a different world.

In front of his eyes he sees a collection of characters who run a cake business, and whose cosy domestic life soon erupts into drama and intrigue. Haynes has led a sheltered life, so at first, he wants only to observe, but gradually he gets pulled into the drama. Benoit, who keeps the books and lives with Mrs Rouse, Mrs Rouse herself (his landlady), Maisie her ne’er-do-well niece, her loyal servant Philomen and the very naughty nurse erupt into a fine old barny. 

The novel can be viewed like a play, as we look with Haynes from his room onto the drama in the yard. The main characters pass through, have huge arguments, gossip, work and even engage in fisticuffs. Eventually he is drawn in by the other residents, by appeals for help, by the need for people to discuss their problems with him, and by his eventual sexual involvement with Maisie. It’s a huge mess that carries on until the final curtain. I was reminded of being a confidante, hearing a friend’s difficult circumstances with sympathy but then finding them returning again and again, saying, ‘do you know what s/he’s done now?’ 

Benoit has been unfaithful to Mrs Rouse for years, and especially with the nurse. He is goaded into leaving Mrs Rouse and living and then marrying the nurse. But Mrs Rouse is consumed with grief at his departure and connives and contrives to bring Benoit back. The nurse finds him unsatisfactory in turn and throws him out. This triangle is the mainstay of the plot. 

The novel contains themes of class (Haynes is clearly a class above the other characters in the drama) and gradations of colour (especially the nurse who appears white but has clear indications of a mixed parentage). The novel also celebrates the excitement and vividness of Caribbean life. The colonial presence is not explored, but the departure of Trinidadians for America is already changing Port of Prince. Trinidad did not gain its independence until 1962.

With the republication of Mint Alley, Penguin and Bernardine Evaristo have begun to succeed in resurrecting ‘texts that will help reconfigure black British literary history’. I loved it.

CLR James

CLR James

CLR James was born in Trinidad in 1901. 1932 he came to Britain, then moved on to the USA (1938-53) but because his visa had expired moved back to UK. He lived in Hampstead, Willesden and then Brixton where he died in 1989. 

Minty Alley was his only novel. He published other non-fiction works such as The Black Jacobins, which was the history of the Haitian slave revolution, and wrote two plays on the subject. He was also interested in cricket and a revered commentator for the Guardian. He wrote a highly praised book about the sport called Beyond a Boundary (1963).

Minty Alley by CLR James was first published in 1936. In 2021 it was republished in the Black Britain: Writing Back series by Penguin. 260pp

The collection is curated and each volume is introduced by Bernardine Evaristo.

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