Melanie Abrahams: “I like Jamaica, but I’m more Trini-minded”

Melanie Abrahams, London-based literary promoter, on her mixed Caribbean heritage, and using literature to negotiate identity — as told to Joshua Surtees

Melanie Abrahams. Photograph by Linda Brownlee

There were always books around the house growing up — Anansi’s fables, Enid Blyton, Winnie-the-Pooh, fairy tales about soucouyants and la diablesse — so as a child I developed a love of words and language.

My mother knew books were important, even though she wasn’t really into them. Mum was serious about my sister and me getting the education she never had, but she didn’t think you could make a living from the arts, so I was supposed to study maths and engineering at university. I kind of liked the idea of being a pioneering female engineer, but after visiting Trinidad for the first time in my gap year I had a change of heart. Three days into my studies at Bristol, after visiting the humanities faculty and talking to the professors, I switched to a politics degree instead.

As an adult, my bookishness, my maths, and my political studies have helped me to establish myself in the literary world and create several successful companies built around representing Caribbean writers and artists. I support and nurture them, curate festivals where they read and perform, and I act as their agent, tour manager, and general champion.

I used literature from quite a young age to find my own identity as a Londoner with a Trinidadian mother and a Jamaican father. I felt invisible at school — other kids didn’t recognise that I had Caribbean links. Later on, in my teens, I discovered African-American writers like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, and that led on to discovering Caribbean writers and getting in touch with issues around race, multiculturalism, and being mixed-race — I’m a mix of Chinese, African, Carib, Arawak, Portuguese, French, and Spanish.

In my late twenties, I finally plucked up the courage to go into the arts fulltime, after some years of going round the houses, career-wise. I had experience of stage management from Bristol, where the now very famous British comic actors David Walliams and Simon Pegg were my contemporaries. I also knew about fundraising through volunteering for mental health organisations, and I’d learned invaluable business skills from a graduate trainee scheme at Marks and Spencer, where I’d joined a working group for black and ethnic minority employees raising awareness for issues like sickle cell anaemia, which was an emerging problem for African and Caribbean people in the UK. I was responsible for the programming of fundraising events, and booked musicians like Courtney Pine and worked with ex-footballer Garth Crooks, who was one of the ambassadors for the disease.

That gave me the business acumen and strategic thinking I needed to apply for my first job in the arts as the programmer at the Africa Centre in London, in 1996. It was the major centre for African arts and culture, and I was working across ten different art forms. The centre closed last year after sixty years in Covent Garden, and was moved to East London. The original building was sold to property developers, who turned the building into a shoe shop.

Although it focused on the African continent and the diaspora, it was also a place where black Caribbeans could link to their African heritage. At the time, there was a quite extreme dashiki-wearing, Afrika-with-a-K movement of British-Caribbean people who hadn’t actually been to Africa but created a mythology around it. It was funny, sometimes I’d leave the building to go to the grocery store, and when I’d come back there’d be some of these people and they wouldn’t let me in because they wouldn’t see me as African enough!

Eventually the centre lost some of its gravitas and lost funding from the Arts Council, because a lot of the central London venues, like the Barbican and the Tate, diversified their programmes and started booking Baaba Maal and Youssou N’Dour — the kind of artists we broke, who later went on to make it to stellar status and didn’t want to play our two-hundred-seater venue anymore, they wanted the Royal Festival Hall.

In recent times, there’s been a split between Africa and the Caribbean in the UK, partly driven by economics, partly by the emergence of British-African artists in their own right, like Afrikan Boy and Dizzee Rascal. There’s also less camaraderie and inter-community business deals than in the past.

Eventually I went solo and set up my first business as a literary agent, representing a writer called Kwame Dawes, who is half-Jamaican and half-Ghanaian. I arranged his book readings, education workshops, publicity, promotions, and new commissions. Other writers asked me to do the same, and that became my first foray towards setting up my company, Renaissance One, which represented Bernardine Evaristo, Roger Robinson, Malika Booker, Jacob Sam-La Rose, Lawrence Scott, Rajeev Balasubramanyam, and many other writers over the next five years. We did large-scale tours with more and more writers — the largest tour, called Kin, lasted five months, featured thirty-three artists, and went to forty-five venues.

Renaissance One has been going since 2001. In 2004, I set up my second company, Tilt, which is built around spoken word and oratory as an art form.

 

My mother moved to the UK in the 1960s, when she was eleven, and lived in Notting Hill, where she met my father, who had arrived in his teens.

My sister and I grew up with our single mum from Trinidad. Jamaica was more remote for us, not living with our father, so I learned about it through literature. I first went to Jamaica when I was fifteen, but it was one of those holidays where you go to the places your family takes you, like your cousin’s house, and you spend lots of time in the car. I’ve been four times now, and been to the Calabash Literary Festival, and got to understand the culture more.

I like Jamaica, but I’m definitely more Trini-minded. There’s something more cosmopolitan about Trinidad, and I love picong and word-play and mamaguy. Having said that, I champion several Jamaican artists, like Jean “Binta” Breeze, who is the female equivalent of Linton Kwesi Johnson.

I went to Trinidad later, when I was about eighteen. Trinidad was an epiphany for me — I was enlivened by it. We were in Toco [on the north-east coast]. I remember the long car ride there, and the waves slapping against the beach, and feeling different sensations to anything I’d previously felt.

I’d like to set up projects in the Caribbean. I’ve been bringing writers to the UK for a long time — I’d like to do the reverse now, and make it more of a two-way communication. In recent years I’ve brought over Trini writers and poets like Earl Lovelace, Paul Keens-Douglas, Anthony Joseph, Monique Roffey, Ian Dieffenthaller, and through contact with them I’ve been exploring my own creativity. I don’t want to just be a broker, I want to express myself through art, too: I’ve always sung, and now I’m trying to do public performances. I’ve also recently trained as a life coach supporting small businesses.

In 2012, I curated a festival called London is the Place for Me, to coincide with T&T’s Olympics cultural village. We repeated the festival in October 2014 at the Tabernacle Theatre in Notting Hill with a more pan-Caribbean feel, looking at five cultures: Jamaica, Trinidad, Guyana, Barbados, and Grenada.

We had the poet Abdul Malik, former [UK] Calypso Monarch Alexander D Great, Forward poetry prize winner Kei Miller, the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry winner John Agard, and the new Jamaican Poet Laureate, Mervyn Morris.

I still have plenty of islands I want to visit: St Lucia, St Kitts, Dominica, St Martin. I feel the Caribbean connection whenever I go there, but I know I’m British.

  • Annette Seales

    after all that you are british !