The architect Louis Kahn once wrote that “a city is the place of availabilities. It is the place where a small boy, as he walks through it, may see something that will tell him what he wants to do his whole life.”
In my immediate vicinity, a working-class area of Sheffield, there wasn’t much suggestion that a writing career might be open to someone like me. Few of the people I was taught about at school were from a place like mine, or even wrote about such a place in other than reductive terms. On the few occasions we were taught about black – mostly African American – novelists, their work was delivered drily by our teachers; again, people with whom I had very little in common.
Any sense of possibility came out of the great working-class and black traditions of oral storytelling – the type used by soapbox orators to politicise people on the streets of upper Manhattan during the Harlem Renaissance, or the Griots of ancient west Africa, or the poetry collectives performing in mushairas, or poetic conferences, in the Muslim world. Toni Morrison meant little to me when I was tasked to read her at school, but when hip-hop artists Mos Def and Talib Kweli, as Black Star, encoded the themes of her novel The Bluest Eye in the track Thieves in the Night, I began to think of myself as a writer and, perhaps more importantly, a reader.
For me, then, the sonic world has always offered an entry point into literature, and while hip-hop artists are perhaps less useful as gateways to culture these days, the same creative energy that I responded to as a teenager can now be found in podcasts. George the Poet recognised the constrictions in the contemporary music industry, and gave us his inventive poetry in Have You Heard George’s Podcast?, rather than on an album. I have bought many books that I first heard mentioned on Laurie Taylor’s Thinking Allowed, which renders seemingly banal subjects such as “the bed” or “menswear” into a fascinating sociological narrative as told by scholars, woven into Taylor’s accessible personal anecdotes. Shankar Vedantam’s Hidden Brain performs a similar task with books about psychology and the life of the mind, and I’m extremely excited by Broccoli Content, a company not only producing its own shows by and for minority audiences but running a book club, complete with a podcast.
This has contributed to a scene in which members of the black community have rarely been more engaged with literature. We now have an accessible audio space in which deep thinking takes place; where authors who’ve spent two or three years thinking about a topic are asked to unpick it.
Such little moments, had they been around when I was young, would have jolted me into the world of the mind at an early age; they are portals to places that for certain communities may have seemed a million miles away. As I begin my time on BBC Radio 4’s Open Book, my mission is to make it a place of availability, where someone from a place like I grew up in may hear something that will tell them what they want to do with the rest of their lives.