Can you ‘copyright’ a culture?

An interesting article about the exploitation of the Masai culture by commercial organisations and the move towards protecting a cultural identity.  I instantly thought about the branding of the entrepreneur Levi Roots and its reliance on a certain perception of Jamaican culture.    Likewise, the excruciating ‘Italian’ family adverts for  pasta sauce like ‘mama’ makes, if she made it in a factory in Kings Lynn.

Is there a fine line between writing books that explore ‘other’ cultures and exploiting that culture for personal gain?


100-year-old photos of the Caribbean

100-year-old photos of the Caribbean

I have a bad visual memory; I am rubbish at describing activities and places from my imagination.  I’ve probably passed through thousands of train stations in my life, but I’ll have to get to bus up to London Bridge if I want to write about a station in a story.  I need the detail, the specifics.

I have an idea for a series of books set in Trinidad in the 1940s, but even walking around modern day Port of Spain would have its limitations.  That’s why the National Archives’ project to digitise their old images of the Caribbean is so – well – wonderful.  Free to explore, they’ve made accessible to writers, historians and the plain curious, hundreds of images of the colonial Caribbean – from Grenada to Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago to Turks and Caicos – they are inviting us to have a look and have a ‘say’.  An excellent resource!

Tanya Byrne: “At last, here’s a teenager of colour with a story to tell…”

Tanya Byrne: “At last, here’s a teenager of colour with a story to tell…”

Rummaging through the internet, I just found this impassioned article by the young adult writer Tanya Byrne.  She talks of the impact of Malorie Blackman’s ‘Noughts and Crosses’ and the emotional power of seeing protagonists of colour in the pages – and, maybe one day, on the covers.

Misadventures of a frizzy-haired girl

The God channel, the market, the attitude and the rip off. Yup – another ‘black hair’ story. This made me laugh out loud.


I was born with the misfortune of having naturally unsightly hair. My Dad is English/Polish and my mum is originally from Jamaica. I’m from Lancashire and my hair looks like dark chocolate flavoured candy floss that has wilted in the rain. Not a good look in my opinion.

Unfortunately I don’t have a cool thick ‘fro like my sister or natural, bouncy ringlets. Countless times people have encouraged me to ‘go natural’, unknowing that many of the gorgeous looking ‘natural’ women of TV, are either very lucky or are in fact wearing a wig. My auntie always jokes “you should never ask a black woman about her hair”; but its true, the reality of the lengths we have to go to is like a sordid secret.

No one has ever told me I had rubbish hair; it’s just the conclusion I’ve drawn from everything I’ve seen since since birth. I…

View original post 895 more words

Branding black music -als -‘The Lion King’ v ‘Some Like it Hip Hop’


Last week I was chatting to a writer about branding.  He told me that he almost ruined his career when he challenged his publishing company about the cover of his book.  The book told the story of four men’s lives, two black, one white and one mixed race.  The publishers wanted the white protagonist on the cover.

In an interview in the Guardian newspaper a few years ago, the children’s author, Malorie Blackman, argued:

“Through my whole writing career it seems people have always been criticising me for not tackling racism. But things like even having black characters on covers when I first started was a bit of a political statement, because I’ve had more than one bookseller say to me ‘that book would sell better if you didn’t put black people on the cover’.

Yesterday, I was chatting to a work colleague about finding children’s books featuring characters that – well – looked like our children.   She had tried a well-known radical bookshop.  She had received a blank look.  Unfortunately, their lofty aspirations of equality did not stretch to boosting the self-esteem of brown children.

So does branding really matter?

On Saturday, we went to ‘Some Like it Hip Hop’, a dance and music show in London – though to simply describe it as a ‘dance and music show’ does it no favours at all.   The grieving governor of a distant dystopia has shut out the sun and relegated women to second class.  Two women are expelled through the city gates and return dressed as men – and good sense is restored by… books.  What’s not to like?

There’s live singing – gospel, R&B, 80s-style funk, a folky ballad – and eye-wateringly good dancing.  It’s funny, quirky, joyous and utterly London.  The cast, all shapes and colours, look like London.  The audience, all shapes and colours, look like London – a rare thing in a London theatre.  The Welsh narrator beatboxes with the singer and guitarist who may be of east Asian heritage.  The white guys breakdance, the black guy’s king and the women are tough and funny.

But – ‘hip hop’ is hardly a genre likely to entice in much of the general public.  As much as I baulk at stereotypes, I can’t imagine the couple behind us, perhaps in their early 60s, going straight home to spit lyrics with their NWA CDs.  But something filled every seat in the theatre that night.  Could it be the sparkling reviews?  The word-of-mouth buzz?  The posters leaning on the humorous?

The show celebrates the joy of black music in way that won’t terrify a wider audience.  And once again – books save the day!

Over to ”The Lion King’.  The first time – yep, there has been more than once – it struck me.  This is a ‘black’ musical – albeit, topping up the great Disney treasure box.  Okay, it also features the songs of Elton John, so not quite ‘black’, but most of the cast are.  (On the Wikipedia page, there’s an interesting passage about the potential racist and anti-immigration undertones of the film.)

Perversely, the only reason the thought occurred to me was because of the one solitary white guy, dancing and singing in Swahili.  Nearly everybody else visible was played by black artistes.  Yes, it’s set in Africa so that kind of figures, but likewise, good make up and costumes could have sorted that out.

Disney is hardly celebrated for its proliferation of black protagonists.  There’s the princess who’s a frog.  There’s the Jamaican who’s a crab.  They’ve touched Chinese with Mulan and Arabic with Aladdin.  And…  So what if Lion King was celebrated as a showcase of black talent?  An opportunity to nurture a generation of black stars?

Hmm, the problem for me is that’ it’s Disney.  This organisation introduced thousands of little girls to pastel nylon and netting.

Disney rebranding itself as culturally-provocative, challenging the status quo?  Nope.  I wouldn’t buy it.



Natural hair, curly hair – draw the hair! Illustrating ‘multicultural’ books.

dark and lovely

Oh, the politics of black women’s hair.  At the recent Women of the World festival, at London’s Southbank, a session was devoted to debate.    And below is an excerpt from an interview in the ‘Telegraph’ with Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie:

Throughout the interview, Adichie has been playing with her hair, which is neatly braided and tucked on top of her head. She’s waiting for me to ask about it. Because hair is everywhere in Americanah. It has taken root as a central theme. Adichie herself is a leading voice in the natural hair movement – which decries the use of relaxers and anything that chemically alters it. And none of her characters escapes having their locks categorised. Indeed, much of the storytelling takes place in an American hair salon, where Ifemelu has gone to have her hair braided.

There are descriptions of cornrows, braids, shiny straight weaves, box braids, comb-overs, natural afros, corkscrews, coils, russet waves and TWAs (Teeny Weeny Afros). And to style them? Pomades, irons, relaxers, oils, butters, moisturisers and creamy conditioners.

So what of her own hair? As a ‘hair fundamentalist’ surely it’s all natural?

Adichie hesitates. “Actually the tips are Afro Kinky extensions, to add volume. Most black women add extensions to their hair. But I argue that they should be like our own hair. We should embrace our natural style.”

Her approach, she admits, leaves her Nigerian friends bemused. She has even been scolded by strangers for not having a straight weave.

“My hairdresser in Lagos says; ‘Why do you want to use this rough hair? Try this one, it’s silky and soft'” says Adichie. “And I say to her; “because it’s like what grows on my head. That’s why”.

When I confess that my poker straight locks often bore me to tears, Adichie sits-up straight.

“You should go public,” she urges. “In Nigeria straight weaves are very desirable and very expensive. I remember once, when I was in a salon in Lagos, a woman came in and paid $800 for a straight weave. And I sat there thinking ‘what? Get the rough hair. It’s about $9!”

I’ve pasted this in full, because sets out the arguments so much better than me.  It is a subject especially dear to my heart, especially when there is still that Caribbean divide of ‘good hair’ and ‘bad hair’ – if you’re curly, you better get out that hot comb.  In my time, I have had long hair, short hair, straight hair, curly hair, straightened, relaxed and curly-permed hair.  I have loxed my hair (twice), plaited it in braids and there are school photos that involve an afro.

So, I am always intrigued by the depictions of ‘black’ hair in children’s books.  I want to see women and men that look like my friends and family.  But more importantly, I want to children to see themselves and feel proud.

I bought ‘What About Me?’  for  my daughter when she was five months old.  It was in a bookshop in the Southbank Centre – I saw the cover and grabbed it.  (In those days, I used to grab any book that had a brown-skinned child on it, regardless of the quality!)  But this story was great – I read it so much I knew it by heart.  While  I was studying for MA in Sheffield, I used to read it over the phone so her dad could play it on loudspeaker in the car.  But… she used to bend over and kiss the little girl’s face.  I may be disillusioned, but I’m convinced she used to think it was me.

what about me


Then there is the wonderful ‘So Much’. so much I found this after Googling Helen Oxenbury’s name in the early days of Amazon.  (We had a bag full of Helen Oxenbury board books from Booktrust, given to parents when their babies were vaccinated.)  In this book, the illustrator does HAIR.  Daddy and baby – yup, afro.  Mum’s got the braids.  Aunty Bibba, hair up, afro-bun.  And a headband.  (And desert boots!)  Uncle Didi?  Shaved back and sides, with a flat-top mohican combo.  The grannies – handbags and hats.

At a recent event on equality in publishing, there was a rather tense debate about workforce development.  Will a more diverse workforce influence the content of children’s books?  Should it?  In a global society, should we still be asking that question?

I always used to resent the fact that I had to seek out special ‘black hairdressers’  to get my hair done.  In the end, the best hairdresser I ever had was a white guy.  The same way, I feel that children’s illustrators  regardless of their own ethnic background, should feel able and comfortable to draw our hair and features, sympathetically, stylistically and fit for a baby to kiss.