Don't follow the crowd: Writer Reni Eddo-Lodge

The author talks about how a film led to Why I am No Longer Talking to White People about Race

  • Published 14.03.19, 11:23 PM
  • Updated 14.03.19, 11:23 PM
  • 5 mins read
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Author Reni Eddo-Lodge Image: Bloomsbury Publishing

British journalist-turned-author Reni Eddo-Lodge has made everyone sit up and take notice of her scathing debut novel Why I am No Longer Talking to White People about Race— that won the Jhalak Prize and Non-Fiction Narrative Book of the Year at the British Book Awards 2018. The Telegraph caught up with the 29-year-old author for a chat at the Jaipur Literature Festival.

Your debut book has become a bestseller. Did you expect this kind of a response when you were writing it?

No, I didn’t. I don’t think anyone expects that… but I can only speak for myself. I was very focused on the work at that time. It didn’t occur to me that it might have an impact in the world. On publication day, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s it, that’s finished. Going to continue with my life now’. Little did I know that’s when the real work began.

So why are you no longer talking about race with white people?

Well, I think I tried to adequately explain my position in the book… beginning with the blog post that I wrote about five years ago.

What inspired you to write this book?

I was involved in progressive activism for many years for the people trying to change the world… feminists, anti-racists. The financial system was actually disenfranchising and marginalising a lot of people. So anti-racism felt quite natural to me in that environment.

The actual practical reason why I was inspired to write that blog post is a funny one. I watched a film called The Colour of Fear and Oprah spoke about it on her television programme in the early ’90s. In it, there were like five men — two white men, two black men and one east-Asian man and they are all trying to talk about racism and how it affects them. One of the white men just does not want to believe them and has this stony face of denial. He’s just like, ‘I don’t believe you, it’s all in your head blah blah blah.’ The other white man does believe them. This film came out when I was a toddler. It just struck me while watching this film where it came to a point where they are trying to convince this white guy and then one of the black men got very angry and emotional and got like, ‘Why do you not believe us?’ I have been in that situation dozens of times. And almost 30 years on, nothing has changed. It just struck me and I felt, ‘Wow I need to stop because this is going to eat away at my mental health and destroy me with resentment if I continue doing this.’ That is what prompted me to write the blog post in February 2014 that became the book.

How did it take the shape of a book from a blog post?

I was a freelance journalist at that time and one of those freelance pieces I did was written for The New York Times. My agent — I didn’t know he was going to be my agent at that time — had picked up an international edition copy of The New York Times, read the piece, reached out to me in London and asked, ‘Have you thought of writing a book?’

My understanding was that he did not know about the blog post at that time, how it had gone viral, how it had touched many people. The piece I had written for The New York Times was about housing. He asked me if I have thought of writing a book about housing and I said, ‘Well, there’s this thing I have been working on for five years at this point, on anti-racism’ and he was like, ‘That’s what it’s going to be about.’ All my energy was going into… the majority of my writing, majority of my activism was about anti-racism and trying to change the conversation, which he did not know about. When I sent him the proposal he said, ‘Oh, this is a bit strong. You should tone it down.’ I told him this is what I’ve been doing for four to five years and I definitely can’t tone it down.

How long did it take for you to finish writing the book?

My first draft took me a month. People think that’s quick but the first draft was very bad (laughs). So then it took maybe a year to keep working on it and developing it with edits. The reason why it took me a month was because I was working on these issues for half a decade at that point and I knew exactly what to say and the exact arguments that I wanted to make. I have been absorbed in the anti-racist environment for many years and it wasn’t like I was trying from scratch. And then I just kept improving and chucking this bit out and polishing that... and that took maybe a year. The first year I barely did anything, I just wrote one chapter. And then in the second year, I wrote the rest of it.

Was writing this book cathartic or empowering?

It wasn’t any of those things. It was work that I wanted to do and felt deeply passionate about and felt I couldn’t do anything else. I have never really had a stable, steady job outside of freelancing and now being an author. When I graduated from university, the jobs that I tried to do… my heart just wasn’t in it. My heart was in anti-racism, so it was always halfway out the door. It was work ultimately… I didn’t have any emotions about it. It was just like, ‘How do I get this out of my head and on to the page?’ I don’t want to romanticise the job of being a writer.

At what point in your life did you realise that writing is your calling?

Oh, I’ve always been writing. I had diaries when I was a child, I was an early reader since I was four years old. Before I had my blog, I had MySpace and I would blog on there and do bulletins, I was on Tumblr for a bit. I was always writing, I was always finding a place to put my writing. It was just always a part of me.

What kind of books did you read growing up?

I loved my children’s fiction — Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, even though they had golliwogs in those books. As an adult you think, ‘Wow that’s actually racist.’ The Famous Five had golliwogs. We used to actually pick up those books second hand at charity shops and the racism hadn’t been edited out in those editions unfortunately. And then, authors like Malorie Blackman… I loved reading her work when I was a child. 

Which authors influenced you in adulthood?

I love fiction writers. My non-fiction influences come mostly from journalism.  I don’t read non-fiction as much. Some of the amazing non-fiction that I love and go back to are Naomi Klein’s No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth and also writers like James Baldwin. But what I read for pleasure is fiction. I’m reading this great book called The Farm by Joanne Ramos. It’s like The Handmaid’s Tale but with an explicit race and class analysis, it’s really great… loving that! I’m very into feminist dystopian fiction at the moment. I really enjoyed The Power. As a science fiction fan and a feminist, why did this not exist sooner, honestly? I think it’s just because of sexism in publishing, you know.

Your book is a bestseller in the UK and you’re only 29. Any tips for young aspiring writers?

Keep going and don’t follow the crowd. For me, some of the stuff that I wrote about in the book, I actually questioned myself, particularly in the first chapter, all the information wasn't being discussed in the public domain for about 30 or 40 years, to the point that I wondered to myself is this relevant? Should I even include it? Some of those pieces of research — I went down to the Black Cultural Archives in South London or the British Library in King’s Cross — I pulled out some of those archive materials. So as an aspiring journalist or writer, look under the hood of things and look beyond where people are talking and think about the relevance of issues to this particular subjectivity that you’re in, at that moment in time. That’s what I’d suggest.