Candice Brathwaite: ‘We don’t have the infrastructure within publishing to support the black British voice’

·7-min read
 (Bodé Aboderin)
(Bodé Aboderin)

On Candice Brathwaite’s Instagram feed, a wholesome video of her slow dancing and laughing with her husband plays. In an earlier post the author shares an image of her latest book Sista Sister sitting firmly on The Sunday Times Bestsellers List. In pretty much every other post, she wears outfits so vibrant and stylish, you can’t help but hover over each one and hope she’s tagged the brand.

The whole influencer thing has its problems but if we’re being literal about the term, you’d be hard pressed to find a woman - especially a black woman - who wouldn’t take one look at Brathwaite’s life and pine, even just a little bit. She’s a twice best-selling author and TV presenter and she’s also slated to appear at the Evening Standard’s Stories festival in association with Netflix next weekend.

When Brathwaite pops up on my screen for our video call she’s full of life and cheerful, and she wears a bright orange dress with dramatic sleeves despite it being first thing in the morning. I expect nothing less. We’re here to talk about Sista Sister, which comes hot on the heels of her bestselling debut, I Am Not Your Baby Mother, released last year. Despite Baby Mother coming first however, Brathwaite tells me that Sista Sister was five or six years in the making, having been turned down several times by various publishing houses. “The pushback was that there’s no audience for this kind of material,” she says. Not any more. “When the surge of the Black Lives Matter movement happened, not only was it no longer ‘there’s no market,’ all of a sudden every publishing house had a diversity team and wanted ten titles to prove they’re down with the kids.”

The influx of black literature in the wake of George Floyd’s death in the summer of 2020 was hard to miss, with publishers churning out books on anti-racism from black writers. Some were good. Some seemed to spoon-feed non-black readers with the reminder that racism is a thing. A lot - it must be said - were tedious reinventions of the Reni Eddo-Lodge wheel. Despite being a fan of Brathwaite, I admit that I was reluctant to read Sista Sister. What more can be said that I don’t already know and actively avoid dwelling on, lest I have a mental breakdown? I wondered. I’m relieved to learn that Brathwaite shares my trepidation.

“I’m sick to the back teeth of that kind of storytelling. Those stories are a regurgitation of our trauma,” she says. Speaking of non-black audiences, she declares that “if you cannot sit with us when we’re having fun, then that in itself shows your bias. You’re so used to seeing black bodies abused that when we just want to tell our stories, you’re actually not ready.”

 (Sista Sister: Notes on Things I’ve learned the hard way so you don’t have to by Candice Brathwaite (Quercus))
(Sista Sister: Notes on Things I’ve learned the hard way so you don’t have to by Candice Brathwaite (Quercus))

Her sense of fun is on display throughout the book, adding comic relief to some of the heavier moments. An all-too-familiar anecdote strikes me during her chapter ‘Snatching Wigs’, when she describes the stinging feeling and “fish market smell” of getting her hair relaxed for the first time - an experience that I personally remember with a shudder. White readers won’t get it. But that’s okay. Black women will read it and laugh and share it with the other black women they know and that’s kind of the point. Brathwaite says that the book is meant to be passed on to our daughters and nieces, and I can see why. Black millennial women experienced these things in silos, only learning how connected we all are when we matured and were able to put names like “microaggression” and “misogynoir” to our experiences. How much more self-assured, mentally stable and hardy would we all have been if we had a Sista Sister to refer to in our formative years?

Brathwaite emphasises the importance of centering the black female voices and not being afraid to alienate those voices that are more often heard. “I couldn’t turn around and play myself and be like, let’s have this voice that tries to speak to everyone,” she says. “Enid Blyton wasn’t speaking to me. The Babysitter’s Club wasn’t speaking to me. JK Rowling wasn’t speaking to me.”

Our talk turns to social media and life as an influencer. She clearly is one, with 228,000 followers on Instagram alone, but does she like that label? “It’s dependent on how you’re influencing and what you’re sharing,” she says. “If it’s that people are influenced by me to live an aspirational life or to reach for the things that we’ve been told we can never have, then call me an influencer all day long.” At the same time she makes no bones about what influencing entails. “I hate that people dance around the fact that it’s a business. You need this amount of eyeballs so that Nike will pay you two grand. That’s a necessity and it’s part of the business model.”

You won’t catch Brathwaite being too flashy about those brand deals though. “I’ve got no interest in appearing flossy or showing off. I love luxury unboxes and luxury content but I know how I’m wired and what my purpose is. I just think influencing starts to go left when you get caught up and lose sight of why you even started.”

 (Bodé Aboderin)
(Bodé Aboderin)

Despite how lucrative brand sponsorships can be, it’s hard enough being a hypervisible woman on the internet, let alone a hypervisible black woman. From being underpaid in comparison to their white counterparts, to targeted bullying from other influencers (Brathwaite was one of Clemmie Hooper’s troll Instagram account targets), they put up with a lot. “I’ve had horrendous experiences, not only with other influencers but also with fighting to be respected by brands and fighting to be paid what I’m worth,” she says. “It’s a tremendous jigsaw puzzle specifically for black influencers. You know that even if you had a similar platform - even a bigger platform [than a white influencer] - you are going to be undercut at some point in your career. Influencer pay is a reflection on world pay.”

This might well come up again. On September 25, Brathwaite will be joining the writer, poet and activist Kadija Sesay on a panel I’m chairing about Black British Writing, at the Evening Standard’s Stories Festival in association with Netflix. I ask Brathwaite for a preview of what she’ll speak about when it comes to the problems Black British writers face. “Black British writers aren’t the problem. Publishing is the problem. The institution is the problem,” she tells me. She recalls the editing process of I Am Not Your Baby Mother during which a white editor made culturally insensitive comments, leading the author to insist on a black editor being hired. “I was like hold on a second - everyone wants a black writer but you man ain’t got no black editors. We’re already going to have a problem here because the editing will dilute the voice.

“We have the writers and we have the stories,” she continues. “We don’t have the infrastructure within publishing to support the black British literature voice. How are we going to protect or legitimise the voices of black British writers if we’re walking into publishing houses and the only black face you see is in the canteen or at the reception desk?”

What’s the one thing she wants her readers to take away from Sista Sister? “It’s not in your head,” she declares after a long pause. “Women that look like us are gaslit to death. There’s always another hurdle, and that deep feeling when you know you haven’t got that job because of your hair or your skin tone - because of things that are in a lot of ways outside of your control - that’s not in your head.”

There’ll undoubtedly be plenty of black women out there who needed to hear that.

Candice Brathwaite is part of a panel on Black British Writing at The Evening Standard’s Stories Festival, in association with Netflix, at Picturehouse Central on Saturday, September 25, 9-10pm. The festival runs from September 24-26, tickets are on sale now. Head to stories.standard.co.uk to book and find out more about the line-up

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