The Monthly interviews Raquel McKee, poet, writer, actor, and musician, about her early life and her influences – Part 2

Part one of this interview is here

Who would you say were your influences?

I would have to say, and I think that quite a lot of writers who came from Jamaica would say this, Louise Bennet Coverley, the mother of performance poetry in Jamaica.  She was the person who was bold enough to write in Jamaican Creole and who wrote about life from the perspective of the Jamaican people and not the colonial perspective.

Every genre of art has a national festival in Jamaica and I would have entered national festivals for speech performing poems by Miss Lou as she was affectionately called. And Miss Lou’s poetry influenced so many people in a very rich way. She was one of the first people who wrote in such a way that it made us proud of ourselves.  She made us feel comfortable in our skin and comfortable in using our own language. 

Louise Bennet Coverley

That seems quite an impact?

I am sure that her work lead to people like Mutabaruka and Linton Kwesi Johnson and they influenced me as well.

Any other influences you look towards?

When I went to college I was introduced to Langston Hughes and another American poet Maya Angelou would be one of my heroes. I was also influenced by seeing the film “The Colour Purple” starring Oprah Winfrey and also “Roots”, the television show about slavery. If you add all of that together, all of those writers and then include my background. That is how I have been shaped as a writer. 

One of the key things I learnt through all of those influences, all of those writers and teachers, is that no one is an expert in me and that how I write is shaped, above all, by my own experiences.

How do all those influences fit with living in Northern Ireland?

One of the things I have been struggling with lately is how do I fit into the canon of the place I live. How can I fit into an Irish or Northern Irish experience? Sometimes I feel that I am excluded because what I do does not fit well with the poetic approach which dominates writing here.

I think another element that I have to come to terms with regarding my situation as a writer is that I am a black woman in a place where women’s voices are not often heard particularly through poetry and black women’s voices are almost completely excluded.

Do you feel there are barriers to get your work accepted?

I think there is no question that there are many barriers, invisible, as well as visible. If I send my work in to various competitions or funding bodies my name will tell them I am a woman. If I write using a dub style of poetic writing then that will suggest that I am not from here, that I am not local and I think while things are just starting to change there really isn’t a lot of space for people who do not fit the local narrative.

I have to constantly ask myself, “Do I stay true to myself and write in Jamaican Creole, which of course will limit who can appreciate and understand the writing. Or do I write in English regardless of whether I wouldn’t quite be true to myself completely.”

I have assumed for quite some time that my avenue to develop my career has been through performance. 

Do you feel there are few avenues to develop your writing at a local level?

I have been encouraged by people at the Arts Council to keep working, keep submitting my work in the way I wish to express myself. I have also been encouraged to apply for funding or to projects which bring people together across the island. I have been part of projects where facilitators have really encouraged me to keep knocking at the doors, keep pushing at the boundaries and not be dispirited. I have decided to keep going partly through my own perseverance and partly through encouragement.

Have you thought about orientating towards an international audience?

I have family commitments: my children and it is not easy to find the time for me to be travelling even for short periods around the world. That simply is not an easy option just yet and currently, there is very little support for mothers of young children to do that.  However I am aware of the Travel award and it is an opportunity I am hoping to take up.

I know that no matter how much support my husband offers me – and he is fantastic- there is still a lot of responsibility for me regarding the upbringing of my children. Having said that, I am eagerly awaiting that time, and will jump at it when it comes.

I often have to say to people regarding jobs or performances that there are limits on my time, I need to be finished at a certain time, I have to be available for the school run, etc.. 

Are there are challenges beyond that of your family commitments?

Yes, being a part-time teacher also means travel has to be within school holidays for the most part. Also, although  I know that while many people might try and avoid this approach, I find that a lot of people assume because I am a black woman I am going to automatically be writing about race and colour.  So I am often invited for specialised, diversity type events – which narrows my work pool. It is a tricky one because I am serious about colour and race and I am a strong advocate for racial justice but I write on a wider set of thoughts and ideas.

I do feel sometimes that I wish people would simply look at my writing as part of a contribution to dialogue in general rather than the more specific question that is assumed because of my background.

Where does that fit then with Black Lives Matter and the movement worldwide?

The issues the Black Lives Matter movement is highlighting has meant that the movement has had a massive impact across the world. I highlighted those same issues in the piece “Time Come” which I performed at the Black Lives Matter rally in Belfast. I think we have hit a tipping point. Things cannot continue anywhere as they have been and that is the message I was aiming to convey through my performance.

I think it is reasonable to say that there must be a reckoning with institutions, churches, communities, interpersonal relationships. There has to be an examination of racism and racist attitudes right across the spectrum of society. And we can see things shifting from banks and universities looking at their role in slavery and talking about reparations, to the portrayal of Jesus, to teaching about slavery in schools. All of this has to be examined and something has to change.

Change is essential?

Yes. Everything has to be examined and racial discrimination has to be dismantled. We must move towards, and achieve, racial equality. It might not happen easily and it might not happen quickly but it is time to achieve this.

I will of course advocate for change and I will continue to examine the question of colour and race, and many other issues as well through my writing as part of that process.

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