Meet Dr Zetta Elliott

At about 5pm today I received a message from my colleague J.S Shah, about the first of their new podcast series. She asked for my support in spreading the word. What she did not know was that she was doing me a favour. Except for little breaks, I had all day been engaged with writing and the occasional reading. What I needed was some audio input. This came in the form of a conversation Jo was having with the writer and academic Dr Zetta Elliott. 

I took some notes while I was listening, which I used to tweet and now I am using them here. My learning style is such that unless I highlight what I read or take notes on what I watch or listen to, it does not register with my knowledge bank. 

Dr Elliott explained that her writing journey began with her English teacher, saying to her: if you want to be a writer, you will be. And it became true. “It was amazing to think I could write a book”, she said. 

Listening to her tell her story brought back memories of my own. I was about 15 and still at school. I had been England for about three years. Round the corner from us was the office of the Saltley Community Development Project. Based there was the bilingual community newspaper, Saltley News. Its Editor was Mahmood Hashmi, the writer of the reportage Kashmir udaas hay, who later had founded Urdu journalism in the UK and edited the first newspaper Mashriq. 

Hashmi became my role model and mentor. A little while later (1974) he published my first article in the Urdu section of his paper. I still have the original copy and use it to uplift myself; seeing my name in print does the trick, still. 

Dr Elliott explained that she had found that story telling was a good way to get some attention; “it felt I had control over something”. As a child she learned that language had power. She also experienced being ‘othered’ at school. This had the potential of taking my mind down very dark memory lane but I gained control and pulled myself back to the podcast. By a complete coincidence I had shared my experience (90 minutes onwards) in my talk at a seminar which Jo had organised over a year ago. 

Dr Elliott touched on internalised racism: “you can’t be more than you were raised to be.” She also spoke of writing a dissertation on lynching. It reminded me of writing my P Word book. I wondered whether like me she would have found it challenging to manage the emotional from her writerly self. 

She explained that poetry for her was a “response to the immediate situation; most economical form. A poem can be written in 30 minutes.”

I agreed with her when she advised self-publishing “if you want the freedom from commercial expectations.” With my earlier writing I was told no one would publish what I had written so I did it myself. 

She reminded us that one does not have to be a consumer of books; “you can be a creator. Writing can be empowering; it can heal …”

Jo spoke of the writer Hanif Kureishi. I thought “oh yes. I too grew up with him. He gave me a presence too.

There was reference to decolonising one’s mind and dealing with racism that all of us in the danger of internalising. 50 years in the UK, I have done that on many occasions. 

There was discussion of how to select names of characters one writes about and how it feels when your name is not there amongst the key-rings etc being sold in shops. 

Jo explained how she acquired her shortened name from the beautiful Javaria and how she was now preparing to recover her original identity. Such is the pressures on minorities to anglicise their names, to make it easier to pronounce for fellow (White) Brits. 

Dr Elliott offered advice to writers: “Feed your imagination; to avoid writer’s block.” And reminded people: “What is your own definition of success?”

There was a passing reference to the commodification of racism. Also how to talk to young children about Black Lives Matter! I was glad our children were already adults.

Jo said “I am loving this conversation”. I thought ‘me too’. 

At the end Dr Elliott was asked what her advice would be to her younger writing self: 

“Trust your experience. Don’t try to become other writers. Don’t try to become Charles Dickens or Alice Walker. Be authentic. Give yourself a chance to find your own voice.”

I now look forward to the second podcast.