I was born in Truro, Cornwall. My dad comes from Nigeria, and my mum is from Jamaica. I define my ethnicity as Jamaican-Nigerian, or more broadly Black British and African-Caribbean. As well as Cornwall, I’ve also lived in Hertfordshire, London and now Oxfordshire.
I have lived in South Oxfordshire for over 20 years and found the majority of people in my local area to be very welcoming. However, there is always a minority who think they are smart and subtle in conveying the fact that they do not feel you belong in a rural location (they are rarely smart or subtle about it). As an author, I continually read people and as a black British author, I use any negativity I experience to fuel my creativity, as was the case with my novel, Darling.
I’ve only experienced overt racism since the Brexit vote. I was walking through my local town and a man on some scaffolding – a builder or similar – called out aggressively: ‘If I were that girl, I would leave the country!’ I was outraged and could not get near to him to argue it out. Instead, I went home and wrote my novel for 8 months straight. It’s been published in the UK, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand and has been optioned for TV. That’s what I mean by channelling the negativity into a positive creative outcome.
In terms of more subtle racism I can think of an example. I was at a fundraising dinner near Henley-on-Thames and seated next to a white male octogenarian. He asked what I did for a living. I told him that I had just written my first novel. He then replied, ‘Oh! And did you have much help with that?’ He would never have asked the question if I had been a white male, like him.
My experiences – good and bad – all fuel me in some way; that is part of being an author. I would go so far as to say I sometimes relish being underestimated as it gives me the opportunity to surprise my own and other people’s expectations, which I perversely enjoy.
That said, I do feel less part of British society now than I did 5 years ago and that is, in part, due to the socio-political direction in which the country is moving after the EU referendum. I counter-balance that by joining in more vocally with the cultural conversation.
I’ve lived in London and in a tiny hamlet and I feel the main difference is that in the countryside, black and brown people are 100 times more conspicuous, so you have to factor that in and prepare for it. This means that you are more exposed – any rumours people start about you, for example, are more likely to stick. You need to have a fairly healthy and positive self-image to be able to deal with that level of conspicuousness, to be honest. It would not be for everyone, but I make it work for me because I write best when in the peace of the countryside.
As someone with truly African-Caribbean roots, I feel that we all face the majority of the same issues and concerns. Now is a time to recognise that as it is a politically divisive moment in our history – we need to stand together to fight bigotry.
I believe that positivity tends to attract positivity, wherever you live. I would advise anyone who is living in an area where they are a conspicuous minority to be confident and exude that confidence, while doing one’s best to form close and supportive relationships within the local community. Don’t be put off by people who do not engage with you straight away – that can be a lack of exposure to otherness rather than a racist outlook. Have faith: we really are all just people, at the end of the day.
I engage with people as widely as possible: as an author, I am lucky to have a platform and I try to use that to discuss precisely these matters. I write about questions of identity and belonging both in my debut novel and in my latest work in progress; I also regularly appear on the BBC, both radio and television, discussing matters of race and identity We can all do more to communicate our experiences and I would encourage others to find their own voice and tell their stories.
To find out more about Rachel’s work visit: www.racheledwards.com