Reni narration: When I first started writing my book, I was very adamant that the lens I was using to look at the world should be pointing outwards, not inwards. I had become fatigued by first person confessional journalism, almost always FROM women, that delved into the secrets of our lives in order to politically interpret the world around us.
White men never have to do this. I felt quite strongly that I should be taken as seriously as the middle-aged-white-guy writer who gets to be objective without ever having to talk about his personal life. But in this episode, I’ve decided to flip flop on what I once believed, for two key reasons.
The first being: once the book came out and I realised that people wanted to know. They wanted to know who I was, where exactly i had come from, and how on earth a book like this one made it to publication. The second reason is more simple -- my producer said I should do it.
This week, I will be in the hot seat, and I’ve enlisted the help of the comedian Nish Kumar, who will be our dirt digger in chief.
Welcome to About Race with Reni Eddo-Lodge
Nish: So what do you describe yourself as?
Nish: author, author and do you consider yourself a journalist?
Reni: Yeah, I do still say author and journalist even though I haven't been able to get my hands, my teeth stuck into a good meaty piece of journalism for a while
Nish: are you uncomfortable with being put in the same sort of part as activists and politicians.
Reni: I still feel very close to my activist background. I still try to pay attention to what's going on and activism. I'm not involved in the same way I once was. I don't think I can be in this position but I still want to signal boost. I’m still happy to sign an open letter. And you know give support in whatever way I can. I'm not doing activism in the way of like blocking roads or anything like that but I always want to know what's going on in those spaces, you know. it's been a crucial way of forming my politics being involved in activism on the ground. I never want to become divorced from that.
Reni narration: Before we get into where I am now, let’s go back to where it all began.
Nish: So you went to stage school?
Nish: like Summer school.
Nish: Oh really.
Reni: yeah so she started out just like hustling on this market stool and then she's making enough money on this market sort of send me to stage summer school
Nish: Did you grow up around Portobello Road than?
Reni: No. So my family were in Tottenham at the time so we would make the early morning drive.
Nish: Oh my god. What was Tottenham like?
Reni: Tottenham, well I didn't spend too much time in and around Tottenham when I was growing up because I went to school in Enfield
Nish: which is north, further north.
Reni: Yeah further north almost suburb like. So I didn't spend too much time in Tottenham. I had friends who did. I just sort of stayed home and read or went on the Internet.
Nish: You were in your own world.
Reni: Yeah pretty much…
Nish: and were you like sort of bookish academic I'm just I'm always interested in what people are like when they were kids again because a friend of mine who I've known for a long time was like you have become the exact adult that you will always going to be like if you met me at 3 you'd be like I know exactly what this guy is going to be like when he's 32 years old. I'm not hanging around to see.
Reni: I see
Nish: So what were you like.
Reni: Did your friend not hang around then?
Nish: No my friend did hang around yeah.
Reni: I was very bookish. I would say my early childhood by the time I met my teens I sort of fell out of it for but I was very bookish, an early read, I was reading my mom was very proud to let people know that I was reading by the age of four. And I was reading everything I could get my hands on. I would say that was basically like the basis of my vocabulary, reading. And then you know I reached teens and adulthood and realised I was pronouncing things wrong. I think middle class people are always like quick to point out Oh that's wrong I'm not what I learned in school or from books.
Nish: What were you reading, what of things on it?
Reni: Oh let’s see, all your basic basic, well not basic great children's literature. You know Philip Pullman, Roald Dahl, Jacqueline Wilson obviously the Harry Potter books which I was you know, massive decision in deciding to sign with Bloomsbury.
Nish: Yeah of course
Reni: Publishers of Harry Potter, still haven't met J.K...Maybe it will never happen.
Nish: Yeah. I think that's surely inevitable.
Reni: I suppose you have to give it time.
Nish: How weird was it then that Hermione is a fan of your book.
Reni: Actually both Hermiones
Nish: Are they both, have they both. You’ve got both Hermiones
Reni: Both Hermiones are, have registered their approval of the book.
Nish: That's amazing.
Nish: how does that feel?
Reni: I don't know. I mean I just maybe it's like delusion of grandeur where I'm like, well of course they would like it. You know why wouldn't they?
Reni narration: When I say both Hermione’s, I mean the actresses who have played Hermione.
I was shocked when, in September 2017, Noma Dumezweni, who plays Hermione in the stage production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, posted an image of my book on her instagram. She wrote ‘I can finally hear the majority of my years being articulated in a language that I can understand, helping me better articulate an experience. I want all the friends I know and love to get a copy of this book please’.
A few months later Emma Watson, who plays Hermione in the films, chose my book for her 200,000 strong goodreads book club Our Shared Shelf, writing ‘I am not supposed to have favourites, however this was the most important book for me this year.’
I had no idea that my participation in the Harry Potter fandom would ever result in this.
Nish: Did you de-nerdify as you become a teenager?
Reni: No I think that like what an only child for maybe seven a half years. I was very used to being lost in my own world because my mom was a single parent she was working all the time you know busy trying to acquire food and money for us to be able to survive in those first few years the council flat it was hard. So I learnt to entertain myself and I think I'm back to that place now like learning to entertain myself but I think for a decent time period between you know, my teens and then early 20s personal relationships with other people really overtook my interest in reading and stuff. And I went to an all girls school as well.
Nish: Oh really?
Reni: So it was like peoples dramas would occupy everyone’s head for an entire week. Who's arguing with who. Blah blah blah.
Nish: It was an all girls, was it like a Catholic School or something?
Reni: Yeah yeah
Nish: Yeah yeah yeah. Was it a state school or grammar school?
Reni: It was a state school
Nish: Were you like good grades, hard working?
Reni: No no not at all I kind of just stopped really caring when I think particularly towards the end of my time in secondary school and sixth form. I just became disillusioned, I was like what is the point? I remember, this is going to sound silly but it really affected me. The transition from year 7 to year 8, and I was like very used to being in the top set for everything and then I was like left off a list for French classes so all of my friends in the top set went into you know top set of French and they were also learning German and I was boosted down to the bottom set where some people couldn’t even say je m’appelle. And I was like, this is bullshit I’m not even going to try if they've you know. I sometimes had this feeling in school of feeling underestimated and I thought that was very demotivating. I remember feeling that in Primary school as well. But I was also quite creative, I remember I got put in this like gifted and talented extracurricular group for art and design, which I really enjoyed but then towards the end of my school experience I think some depression was seeping in as well, I became very demotivated. I remember one of my English teachers saying well just don’t even bother with the A Levels, you’re going to get a D.
Nish: Oh my God.
Reni: It’s so funny actually because my old school has asked me to go in and like do a talk and do prize giving and I’m like only if I can see Ms *woof*and give her a signed copy of the book like...shout out Ms *woof*, said I was going to get a D in English in 2007, I don’t forget.
Nish: You’re like a literary Kill Bill
Nish: Just working through you list of people to go get a signed copy of your book to.
Reni: Ms *woof* if you're still working at *woof* haven't forgotten
Nish: are you going to go back to school?
Reni: My plan is to probably like take part in their prize giving ceremony probably towards the end of this year and I've got a bit more time.
Nish: Right. Okay
Reni: My drama teacher when I was in sixth form she could really see that I was flagging I was failing I was losing interest and she was the one who basically pulled me aside and she was like right you're applying to university because I wasn't going to and nobody else is looking out for me basically nobody else was looking out for me. And she was like you're bright you can do it we are gonna get you to apply. She was like you're going to do it. And I still need to go back to her and say thank you for that because I, you know there were some family problems at home. My parents were consumed with arguing with one another so they weren't really paying attention and they were also some teachers who you know for example Ms *woof* which is like oh she's going to fail anyway whatever. And so like
Nish: I love how many times you’ve said Ms *woof* name.
Reni: Well what can I say I hold a grudge, shout out Ms*woof*.
Nish: I don’t know if you’re looking for an episode title but I think we might have found it.
Reni: I think we’ve got it, I think we’ve got it. I remember in my English class and my drama class because I was quite creative, I loved to write and I loved to read i never did the homework but I enjoyed being involved in the creative things. I think particularly drama. There were clearly students who I don’t think it’s coincidental that they were white, it was like the atmosphere amongst the teachers was like this is the person we’re going to channel all our energies into getting into Oxford, fuck everyone else. You know like that was definitely the vibe that I was getting and it was very clear that I wasn’t one of those kids. And I’m not saying that I wanted to go to Oxbridge but I think just having an environment of people basically already giving up on you before you tried was very demotivating to me and it’s something I very much internalised by the time I was seventeen.
Reni narration: Look, I’ll never know my English teacher’s true motivations for demoralising me. She may have been overworked and under resourced. What I DO know is how badly her words affected me.
It’s quite upsetting to think back to this time period in my life. And not just because I’m reminded of my own personal pain, but also because a decade later, I can see the bigger picture. I know I wasn’t the only teenager left to languish at the wayside by the state education system.
The evidence shows things are looking up, though. The government’s long term stats on this, focused on poorer pupils as a whole, show that what was once a drastic attainment gap between white and ethnic minority students is now rapidly shrinking.
By the time my drama teacher intervened, I was almost past caring. But I took her advice, and made it to university.
Nish: What did you study at uni?
Reni: I did English literature. So I ended up applying and getting into the University of Central Lancashire which is in Preston.
Nish: Preston, right okay.
Reni: in the northwest of England which is a good two hundred miles away from home. And that's where I went and I went to go and study English literature because I’d always love reading and writing.
Nish: So what’s the experience of pitching up in Preston, 18 year old Reni?
Reni: Okay well I had like two suitcases and at this point my little sister had been born my mom had had to give up the stall and money was in short supply in the family. So I remember like I had sixty pounds in my pocket to tide me over until the student loan came in and I just got off the train with two suitcases I didn't really know where I was going.
Nish: What's it like. What’s Preston like?
Reni: Well it was much smaller. It was grey rainy as the Northwest is, you know you think London is bad. The first thing I was struck by was just the intimate friendliness of people in the northwest. I remember getting off the train and I didn't really know where I was going because I hadn't put the time and energy into going round campuses and my parents were consumed with their own stuff so I'd go off and I had there 2 heavy suitcases and and this father and son duo, they had like red hair and freckles, and they’re like are you alright there? Like do you know where you’re going? And I was like no not really. And they were just like, okay we’ll help you and they just like found the campus for me. I wish I could find them and be like you know thank you because it was the first day of the rest of my life. Actually you said when did I realise that like racism was a thing, yeah it was in Preston.
Nish: Right, okay.
Reni: I mean it's a very white place , you know it’s in between Liverpool and Manchester. They’re two big bustling multicultural cities but I think the thing about this university is that there are a lot of people who go to that university from fairly rural areas of England. Like some of them have never really interacted with black people at all ever so...I’m in halls with these people. And you know it was never anything completely overt but there was just low level ignorance, I remember making friends with a Londoner who was white and was very keen to get in with the cool crowd and I’ll never forget this.. There was this like there was a time when I heard him with some of the white people from rural areas, this guy was from East London by the way, laughing at Paki jokes.
Reni: And I was like, this is unforgivable from you.
Nish: What was your relationship with politics before uni?
Reni: I wasn't involved in politics really at all before I went to university.
Nish: Is there a specific reason. Was it just because you were at uni and experiencing or was there a specific reason that you got involved in political stuff.
Reni: I think in my second year I read Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. So that was a consciousness raising text for me, you know classic feminist text and that really got me thinking about the world and the way it’s structured and you know power relationships and stuff and then also there was this, this is the North West in the late 2000s so there was this like ever present threat of the far right like they were organising and they were like fairly popular in the area at the time and they would often do marches and so that was something that really enraged me. Especially, you know i was learning about do much about the World including the Nazis and I was a bit like wow these guys are really trying to bring it back. Someone's got to do something about this.
Nish: And were they, what organisation was it. Was it the BNP
Reni: It was the English Defence League
Nish: The English Defence League Right.
Reni: But at the same time, the British National Party’s Nick Griffin had gone on Question Time.
Nish: I remember it
Reni: So yeah. And I remember that as well, that was a very formative moment for me which is why I sort of discussed it in the book. So that was like the background and because I was paying a bit more attention to the world I was paying attention to that and I was feeling, very disturbed and distressed by it.
Nish: So that’s amazing because that means you’re having this awakening about feminism and racial politics kinds of at the, like that’s a lot to take.
Reni: Certainly, yes.
Nish: That’s a lot of shit to lay on someone’s door.
Reni: So I tried to get involved in it all opposing these things. I tried to get involved in all of them and I remember after I finished reading Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex. I must have been about 19 I just went to google and I Google’d UK feminism and this website The F Word came up and it had information about like conferences and what not, I just found a way to go to them. I found myself travelling down to London a lot and what I found was because of who was organising these events, largely trade unions and stuff, they would actually pay for your travel sometimes to help you just get there. So I was getting involved in these things and meeting people and then staying in contact with them online and because the community felt so small then it wasn't long before like I met everybody, you know. There’s like 12 people and then at the same time I was busy trying to organise against the EDL on campus I remember we, me and the student left network, which was the society I was chairing, we organised a Love Music Hate Racism in the student union bar and raised loads of money.
Nish: So you’re going on marches you’re really engaging with activism and like, I mean in retrospect your current career makes so much sense because you’re studying literature and then engaging in activism. You’ve sort of brought all those things together. Was there a time when you were sort of engaged in activism that you thought this sort of more active thing is what I’m going to do or was the writing always going on in the background?
Reni: Of the writing was part and parcel, I was doing both, I’d go on the march and blog about it. I’d blog about an issue and then find an activism thing to be involved in so it was always, to me those things were just one and the same.
Reni narration: There was a lot to react to back then. 2010 saw the election of a Conservative Government. Then Prime Minister David Cameron used a key speech to declare that state multiculturalism had failed, and argued that Britain’s ‘tolerance’ of other cultures was leading to extremism. It happened on the same day the English Defence League protested in his constituency. This was an angle he repeated throughout his time as Prime Minister. He maintained that British values were the pillar of enlightenment and equality, almost always in opposition to other countries and cultures. This has always been difficult to hear as a person who’s citizenship seemed constantly up for debate.
I tried to write through it.
This is part 1 of a 2 part episode.