I Remember Tasting Salt with Louisa Adjoa Parker
Image: Joff Rees
I Remember Tasting Salt with Louisa Adjoa Parker
Introduction by Caitlin Miller
I first discovered Louisa Adjoa Parker’s compelling work via an article she wrote for Media Diversified, a publication that spearheads giving voice to the BAME community. The article in question stuck a chord: it was about Black History in rural Britain, in particular The West Country.
Louisa and I both grew up in the region: an area of England famed for its beautiful beaches, countryside, seafood, cream teas, cider, artisan gin and warm hospitality. On discovering her fascinating work, I reached out to Louisa and was delighted and honoured when she agreed to be interviewed and to feature some of her poetry in Irisi.
At Irisi we champion an editorial ethos that seeks to be actively supportive and inclusive to BAME voices. Louisa’s work, in its very essence, challenges the mono-cultural, white only, English only, sense of Britishness, which often feeds bigotry and discrimination.
In reclaiming the history of Black people in the West Country, and writing about her own experiences, Louisa’s work bravely confronts this type of virulent racism and xenophobia, which has been evidenced so explicitly in recent political happenings. Her poetry and articles shed light on her unique experiences of growing up in rural and coastal Britain as a beautiful young mixed race woman. She also writes eloquently and movingly on the class divide, female sexuality, racial identity and the darker side of relationships, including sexual violence and abuse.
Societal issues surrounding immigration and identity have always been of interest to me. I was born in Exeter, and like Louisa I grew up by the sea on the beautiful South Devon coast. I attended school in Torquay and later went to university in London and Hertfordshire. My mother is English and grew up in the North West. Her ancestors are predominately from Cheshire, Somerset and The Lake District, with a touch of Cornish and Irish heritage a few generations back. I feel proud to be British and now live close to Oxford with my husband and our cat and dog. I loved growing up in Devon, but I am also proud of , and feel a connection to, the strong Irish heritage on my late father’s side. My own Paternal Grandparents were Irish Immigrants, from Mayo and Donegal, who settled in North London. My Grandfather, who grew up on a farm and first found work in Britain repairing World War 2 damage, used the opportunity to become a prosperous businessman, contributing to society by building a business from scratch with his wider family, including my great aunt and uncles.
Through his determination and hard work he provided for his family and enabled my late father to receive an education and become a successful and brilliant doctor, who worked for the NHS. My Grandfather always maintained that he was thankful for the life he created here for himself and his family, but he always retained a love for Ireland and, growing up, my father and his siblings and cousins would spend summers there. I will never forget my Grandfather telling me about when he first arrived in London in the 1930’s: about how he and other hard working immigrants were greeted by signs on the doors that read ‘No blacks, No Irish, No Dogs.’
It is horrific to think that attitudes like this still exist today. Louisa’s work offers a ray of hope, and enlightens on the complex and colourful nature of what it means to be Black and British, and to have been descended from immigrants.
It would be remiss not to mention that Louisa also has great taste in music. In our interview she name checks Lauren Hill as being an inspiration. I remember my friends and I, as slightly rebellious fun loving teenagers in the late 90’s, loving her album too. Black women were even more underrepresented than they are now. Hill’s songs and raps were revelatory, romantic, full of fire and beat. By serendipity Louisa and I lived a few miles down the coast from one another in South Devon, ‘The English Riviera’, when this super cool album ‘The Miseducation of Lauren Hill’ dropped.
Like many other fellow fans of music in the area I would experience a surge of joy and excitement when songs by Lauren Hill or another artist/ genre came on the radio or oozed seductively from the speakers in a nightclub. I imagine Louisa would have too. It is as though the lyrics and melodies had the ability to levitate above the rhythmic waves, touching people from all classes, and races, in an iridescent musical rain. And it strikes me as magical that Louisa and I, from very different worlds, yet living so close by, both felt it.
Poetry is in possession of a similarly potent universal power to music. It too has the ability to break down barriers, provoke thought, provide inspiration and solace, and ultimately, connect with people across the board on a deep, emotional level. Louisa’s fierce and emotive poems demonstrate this with penetrating and enchanting verve.
Motivated by the desire to learn more about Louisa’s unique work and practice, I asked the series of questions below. I was fascinated to hear her responses, please read on and enjoy.
What/ who would you say were your main artistic/ literary/ musical influences growing up?
I’ve always loved reading, from the age of 3, and apparently I was obsessed with books from when I was 6 months old. I read a lot of Enid Blyton as a child, then I went through a teenage phase which included Jackie Collins and later Stephen King and Ruth Rendell. I didn’t read much poetry when I was young, or if I did, I don’t remember. I’ve always loved escaping into stories, and watched a lot of drama and films as well as reading. I’ve always been attracted to bleak, dark stories that cause us to feel deep emotions. Music-wise, I was a teenager in the 80s so progressed from music like Wham and Madonna, to reggae and dance music. I loved drum and bass and jungle in the 90s. I got really into black artists in my 20s, such as Lauryn Hill. I think in some ways this was the only place I saw myself represented anywhere. I have always loved Tracy Chapman, and still listen to her early music today. I think it was the first time I’d been aware of someone singing about domestic violence, poverty and racism, all of which impacted on my life. I love visual art as well, especially photography, and theatre. For me, good art means anything that has the power to move you, lift you out of your everyday experience, enables you to reflect on the human experience in some way and feel something.
When did you decide you wanted to write and how did you get into writing poetry?
I wrote Enid Blyton style adventure stories from around the age of 6 (no doubt laced with lashings of sexism and racism as well as ginger beer) and the odd poem. I remember a haiki-style poem I wrote after watching a sunset:
A splash of red
across a golden sky.
The creative writing stopped by my teens, other than in English lessons, but I began writing diaries, meticulously recording every detail of my life, Bridget Jones style. I’ve been reading them again recently. Life was incredibly tough as a mixed-heritage young woman in South Devon, which was pretty much totally white back then. Home life was difficult too, and writing in a diary allowed me to express my feelings. I tried writing stories as a young adult, but couldn’t tap into the creative feeling inside me. When I returned to education as a mature student in my 20s, I studied Sociology, and somehow this enabled me to find my voice – I began writing articles and poetry. I wanted to explore the difficult experiences of growing up with domestic violence and racism. 70s and 80s Britain was unbelievably racist, and I always lived in white spaces, so I struggled to find my place in the world. Writing helped me accept who I am, and it was healing, to some extent. My first poems weren’t very good, but I persevered. My friend’s mum, the poet Selima Hill, had a look at my work and was really encouraging. I felt that I had something to say, and had found a way to begin to say it.
How would you say your heritage coupled with growing up in the West Country has impacted on your writing?
My heritage, which is Ghanaian and English, has been a big part of it. I needed to tell people: this is how it feels to feel you don’t belong, to look different to every single other human being around you, to be the only brown face in a sea of white ones, to constantly experience racism at different levels. This is how it feels to spend your adolescence believing you are ugly, and worthless, and fat, and that you look wrong against a rural landscape, that your face looks out of place with a backdrop of fields and woods and beaches. I love the South West and some of my work (I hope) reflects the beautiful land and seascapes, but also the rural deprivation and other difficulties that minorities can experience here. Of course there were other factors that shaped my view of myself and caused me to want to write – violence in the home and the fear this instilled in me also had a huge impact. It’s hard to unpick what caused what, or what led me to want to write – different forms of oppression often intersect, and that is something I also wanted to look at.
Please can you tell us about your motivation to take part in black history projects and how this has impacted on you personally and on your writing/ creativity?
The black history work came along around the same time as the poetry. I was studying a Racism and Migration module as part of my degree at Exeter Uni, which was fascinating – everyone should study this subject! I really began to understand racism for the first time – before this, it had been something that surrounded me like mist, something that I was aware of from very young, but I accepted it without knowing where it came from. It just was. Studying the history of racism, and that of non-white people and their connections with Britain, helped me put things in perspective and to understand my own place in history – I wasn’t, as I had always believed, one of the first people in the country to have one white European and one black African parent! I remember hearing during a lecture one sunny afternoon that there was a grave of a black eighteenth century person in Devon. This led me to want to know more, so I decided to write my dissertation on multicultural Britain pre-World War II. After I left Uni I helped set up a project with Lyme Regis museum researching the history of ethnic minorities in the area. Local records were full of connections with – and the presence of – people of colour. It just needed someone to pull it together. After that I went on to do more BAME projects in Dorset, and I hope to carry out similar work in South Somerset, where I live now! The black history work sometimes inspired me to write poems, for example I wrote Velvet Dresses, which is about finally believing I belonged in Dorset and wanting others to feel they belong in the West Country too, whilst carrying out the research for the Dorset’s Hidden Histories book.
What are the main things you learnt whilst being involved in and writing about black history projects?
I learned that Britain has a far more multicultural history, stretching back thousands of years, than most of us imagine. I learned that Britain had a huge role to play in the African slave trade, for example, although so often the focus is on America’s role and American black history. Yet Britain is thought to have shipped around 3 million Africans as slaves, and the country became rich from the trade as well as the huge government compensation (the equivalent of £20 million today) paid out to British slave owners after the slave trade ended. I learned about the terrible things that happened to enslaved Africans. I learned that Empire and colonialism did untold damage to all of us, and we are still witnessing the effects. I learned that people have always travelled, and mixed, and connected with each other, and our cultures have mingled. Many white British people will have non-white ancestors, somewhere down the line. I also learned that the British countryside, far from always being predominantly white, actually has a rich, ethnically diverse history and numerous connections with many countries.
What 3 things would you tell a 16 year old you?
Things will get better, and sometimes hard again, but keep going.
Stop smoking. It’s not cool. You’re asthmatic and the two really don’t go together well.
Try to love yourself, just a bit – you are worthy of love.
What advice would you give young aspiring writers?
Read lots. Different genres. Watch films. Understand there are many different forms of telling stories. Don’t expect to make lots of money through writing, although you might one day, but that can’t be the reason you write. Seek feedback on your work and don’t be too precious – we all have to learn and develop our craft. Understand that rejection is part of being a writer, and that it can be hard opening yourself up and telling the world your stories. Be brave. Be honest. Don’t try to sound ‘poet-y’ or how you think you should sound, but write from the essence that is you. Dig deep. What you write might be crap at first, but it will get better. Keep going. Read lots more. Keep reading.
Tell us a bit about the books you have written so far and what your plans/ dreams are with regards to your writing?
I have two collections of poetry published – Salt-sweat and Tears was published by Cinnamon Press in 2007, and Cinnamon also published my pamphlet, Blinking in the Light in 2016. Both are largely autobiographical and explore my experiences in the South West. I’ve begun to seek inspiration for my poems outside of my own experiences, and my latest collection, which I am currently sending to publishers, reflects this. I have also written several books (and exhibitions) exploring past and present histories of BAME people in Dorset.
I have recently completed my first short story collection, which I suppose is about telling a different type of love story as well as showing a different England to the one often portrayed in literature. I write about people from marginalised backgrounds in the South West, and often my stories feature domestic violence, or psychological violence, love and loss. I have submitted this to one publisher, so fingers crossed both these books will find a home soon! I can’t wait for my short stories and new poems to be out in the world. I am working on a novel, although I seem to have drifted away from it whilst finishing my short story collection and writing a lot of articles over the past year. I have ideas for other novels and a fourth poetry collection which will be based on my 1980s teenage diaries. I’d like to write a book exploring black history in the South West, so am thinking about the best way to go about doing this.
How effective do you think poetry is at giving voice to women and the immigrant and black British experience?
In some ways it can be an effective way to give people a voice, and there are some amazing BAME and BAME female poets out there. Some BAME poets have seen great success recently, which is brilliant. Caribbean poets such as Linton Kwesi Johnson helped carve out a space for voices of the ‘other’ during the twentieth century. On the other hand, BAME writers continue to be massively underrepresented in publishing, as the ‘gatekeepers’ are often white males who tend to publish in their own image. This is why we need the BAME writers’ prizes, which some people don’t ‘get’, or say are ‘racist’ against white people. People have been talking about problems with diversity in literature for years but it still hasn’t changed enough. And then there are regional issues – there is a strong literary network which supports diverse writers in London, for example, but it’s harder for those outside of London and I’d love to see more schemes to support us.
Who/what are you reading now and what is on your poetry wish list?
I am reading Maggie O’Farrell’s latest novel, This must be the place (I have read all her books); the much-discussed brilliant Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race, by Reni Eddo-Lodge; and David Olusoga’s Black and British: A forgotten history. It’s massive, and so detailed, and I’m learning so much! Everyone should read the latter two books; black British history is British history and there is a wealth of information on Britain’s long relationship with racism available these days. I’ve also got this year’s Bridport Prize anthology. I don’t tend to read much poetry on a day-to-day basis – I dip in and out of poetry books, read poetry online, or read lots when I’m preparing for a workshop. And Other Poems is a fantastic online publication. I would love to read work by Warsan Shire, Rishi Dastidar, Inua Ellams, John Siddique, Elizabeth Rimmer, Josephine Corcoran, Jo Hemmant, Nick Makoha, Jane Kenyon, Kayo Chingonyi, Gail Ashton, Kim O’Loughlin, Joanne Limburg, Malika Booker, Karen McCarthy Woolf, Jackie Kay and many more (who I can’t think of off the top of my head – I should have made an actual wish list, instead of keeping it in my overcrowded brain).
Below is a selection of Louisa’s unique and important work, sharing her inspiration and experiences. Please read on to get your poetry fix and share widely!
Poetry by Louisa Adjoa Parker:
Boy at the Station
His arm’s stiffened by a plaster cast from wrist to elbow,
an empty sleeve hangs from his shoulder, flapping
as though he’s a one-winged bird. He strides through station,
all long, thin legs in skinny jeans, Michael Jackson dancing shoes,
white tee and biker’s jacket. A cigarette’s stuck to his lip,
his black hair’s damp with product. He loves the Fifties, films
in black and white – especially French – all the world’s a film
and he’s the star. Subtitles dance beneath him as he pauses
on the bridge, skitters down the iron steps with Ali-shuffling feet.
Soon he’ll leave all this behind – this dead-end market town
where nothing happens daily, long weekends in ’Spoons,
the house he lives in with his mum, beige bricks and double glazing,
artexed ceilings, the constant threat of tears, her posters
of James Dean. He’ll move to Paris, hole up in a loft in the city where
he’ll meet his girl, all white walls and floorboards, exposed brick –
an easel he can fill with colour. He’ll work as an artist;
she will be his muse – he’ll use broad strokes to capture shades
in the burnt-toffee hair he loves sweeping from her neck, her clear
brown eyes, magnolia skin with just a hint of peach, the cello
curves of waist and hips, her rose-tipped breasts. They’ll fling
the shutters open when it rains, breathe in wet earth, drink bottles
of red wine, fuck for days with tangled sheets entwining them.
They’ll venture out for pain au chocolat, drink thick coffee
from shot-size cups. They’ll barely eat; they’ll be so full of love
that there’s no need. They’ll live like every moment’s a still
from some old film; the composition perfect, camera panning in
on lips, or skin on skin, zooming out to show them walking
through the dark on wet-shined cobblestones, holding hands
and laughing as he swings her arm into the air. One day
he’ll bring her home, show her fields of cows with heads bent low
to the grass, ducks on the river Frome, the Wednesday market
full of tat. He’ll take her for a pint in ’Spoons. The two of them
will stride through this town, macs flapping in the wind like wings.
He’ll show them all his one true love; that he’s made something
of himself. She’ll say everything is pittoresque; he’ll carry
their suitcases with his two good arms.
i want to taste your smile
like a low-slung sun suspended
over rooftops in a sky the colour of oranges
i want to feel your hands on my hips your lips
against mine whispering you are beautiful kissing the
top of my head i want to lie with you with windows flung
open and the rain coming in i want to share the stars with you
share the moon with you the sea the night i want to lie in parks all
day breathing in strangers the sounds of traffic with the sun getting hotter
on our backs i want to walk on beaches getting stones in my shoes i want you
to come behind me hold me stroke me like water want to wake to your smile
like the sun
An Afternoon in August
Although it’s August, the blackberries are ripening
early, so we load the children into the red wagon
with a plastic pint glass each to collect the berries.
We can’t find any in the bramble bushes bordering the park
like a lace hem, but my friend finds some in an alley, hiding
under clematis. We reach for the higher ones; the children pick
the ones low down. There is peace to be found in foraging
for food, the way berries burst, bright juice staining
your skin. The baby sits in the wagon smiling like a tiny king,
a parrot hat for his crown, juice staining his face, as he dips
his hand in and out of the cup – as though the berries are purple
jewels, or spun of finest gold – saying Thank you, more. The boys eat
as we pick. My girl saves hers so she can share them with her mum.
Back home we sit outside, the children play in the summerhouse
with its French-grey walls, each strip of decking painted
in a different colour. Boy’s clothes strung against the sky –
checked shirts, pyjama bottoms with blue stars dancing
over them. My friend sits at her garden table, face
scrubbed clean and bare of make-up, chopping vegetables,
talking, while the boys sneak pieces of courgette.
Above our heads a green triangle hangs suspended in the sky,
like a frozen kite. It’s called a garden sail, as though this quiet,
happy space – all plants and colour, light-dappled wood,
children who are kept close by – is a ship this family sails on.
Love ends how it begins.
The suddenness startles you
like the wingtips of a late-home bird
brushing your cheek in the dark.
Love, when it comes, spills across,
fills your world like rising seas.
Now it has gone, there is no bright star
out there, loving you, carrying
your heart in theirs.
Like tides, love quickly retracts
– cold water moving over stones.
Whereas once it flooded you,
now the shore is empty
and in the quiet, seagulls cry his name.
Girls in high heels
They clip-clop past like horses, heels lifted high
from the earth, bodies tipped towards
the night, dresses tight
as a second skin. Their shoes pinch and rub,
but tomorrow’s blisters – angry buttons
of skin – are worth it.
Their feet are bound, encased in bone-hard
leather that does not flex or move or breathe;
these shoes are made to crush feet, not caress them.
Spines thrust forwards, they trot
towards the bar, lit like a beacon in the night,
full of men waiting to tell them they’re beautiful.
They’ll spend half a month’s wages on heels
to line their wardrobes like armies. On the way
home, drunk, with aching feet,
they’ll take their shoes off, walk barefoot
amongst dog-shit, used condoms, broken glass
and beer cans, shoes dangling from their hands like baubles.
I remember tasting salt
Outside the sky is pale
as the white peeling paint
on the wooden-slatted walls
inside the beach hut.
Then, the warm press
of his hand on my head.
I’m not sure if I want this,
yet soon the spill of him
is white; a liquid salt, a sea
that fills my throat before
I spit him on the floor.
Outside, salt-waves move
up and down the sand.
White-winged seagulls circle
in the wind; people laugh
and walk along the rusty pier.
Louisa Ajoa Parker is a UK based poet, writer and BAME historian of Ghanaian and English heritage. Her work explores themes which include racism, identity and difference, home, place, gender and violence.
Louisa has been Writer in Residence for Lit Up! and Poole Libraries; HMP YOI Portland; and schools including Oldway Mansion, Paignton, and Holy Trinity School, Weymouth.
Louisa’s work has appeared in a wide range of publications including Wasafiri; Envoi; Bare Fiction; Out of Bounds (Bloodaxe); Closure (Peepal Tree Press); and And Other Poems. She has been shortlisted by the Bridport Prize and the Live Canon Competition; highly commended by the Forward Prize and longlisted by the Mslexia Novel Competition. She has written for gal-dem magazine, and has work forthcoming in The F-Word and INTR Magazine.
You can discover more about Louisa and her work on her website here.