Rishi Dastidar on the opening event of Free The Word 2010
So, to the Purcell Room, for a robust conversation between Margaret Busby, James Kelman and Olive Senior (chaired by Maya Jaggi) about the battle - and I think it's fair to say that all thought that was (and is) a battle - to open up English to other identities.
What was striking was how much this remains strongly contested political ground. As Kelman forcefully reminded us, in many places official English has been imposed as a punishment, so writing in your own 'voice', taking and shaping English into a pattern that is reflective of your natural syntax and rhythm is not only a way of being authentic - it is rebellion too, a way of overcoming marginalsiation too.
Don't doubt that this is a hard road to take: Senior was very clear on the fact that she was treated earlier in her career as being unable to write in English because she wrote in an authentic Jamaican voice ("'We like it, but why don't you write it in English?'"), reminding us of the fact that not being from the centre still means that you are both exoticised and treated as unrepresentative of mainstream culture. And that view can also mean that you struggle to be taken seriously as an artist, and have to fight to escape the 'naturalistic' tag, the idea that you are nothing more than a mere 'transcriber'.
Busby also reflected on the fact that a lot these hurdles are, and remain, structural - it's unsurprising that a mainly white, middle class publishing industry buys and attempts to sell books that reflects this perspectives, and for this reason alone, championing diversity in the industry makes sense - it opens up another strand of possibilities.
(One final thought: When Kelman was reading, you could shut your eyes and imagine for a moment that rap had been invented in Govan rather than the Bronx. A pleasing, if incongruous, thought.)