I grew up reading books that didn't feature characters who looked like me but that was okay, I could write my own stories, right? I moved out of my parent's house two years ago and on cleaning out my childhood room I came across some of these lovingly illustrated exercise books of my 'novels'. I smiled. Here was confirmation that I was a true writer. Look, here I was at seven, ten, thirteen writing and writing. I sat down amongst bin bags and boxes to read them. When I got up, hours later, I was embarrassed, as we've all no doubt felt when revisiting our previous selves, but this was different to the usual 'I can't believe I used to wear that/fall out of clubs/cried over him'. This was frightening. In every story I was a little white girl. I had blonde pigtails, I had the bluest eyes, so blue that 'sometimes they were clear'. What was clear to me then was the damage limited representation could do to a child.
Later, at university studying literature, I'd look at my reading list each new term and wonder where all the great women were, where all the great Black, Asian and minority ethnic writers were. What, not even Morrison?! I'd turn my list over in the hope that it was continued overleaf but no, we'd been excluded - again. I realised then that although I loved it, although I wanted to be part of it, literature systematically marginalised women and people of colour.
Around that same time, I'd begun meeting a number of brilliant women on the London poetry scene at various readings and events. Afterwards, in the bar or making our way home, we'd share heartbreakingly similar anecdotes about how difficult it was for us to be listened to, recognized and untokenised in our respective academic spaces. I decided that we needed somewhere we could come together to read the books that we were in, where we could write our true selves and where we could share and hopefully heal. I badly needed that space and now I knew all these other women who needed that too.
I approached Bea Colley, Literature Co-ordinator at Southbank Centre, who I'd met the year before on a young producers programme. She was incredibly supportive of the idea of our group meeting, which meant unquantifiable amounts. Octavia began to meet monthly at Southbank Centre, and the rest they say is history - or the history we are making. Southbank Centre not only give us space but they consistently support us. They include us in their festival programmes. Octavia have been invited to read at the Poetry Library, at Women of the World and the London Literature Festival. Last October, Southbank invited me to curate and run a series of Octavia-inspired workshops for women of colour. Telling Her Story is a series in which participants can sign up for the whole course or they can dip in and out. It's a wonderful way to extend the ethos of Octavia, to widen the community of women of colour poets.
Octavia's meetings include reading, writing, discussion and cake - us being able to come together and write together is a celebration after all. Who we read is not exclusive, I don't see the point of that. Reading, I believe, should always be as diverse and rigorous as possible. We'll read everything, we'll critique everything. We'll take it in turns to bring in poems or whole collections that we've fallen in love with and want to interrogate. We'll then write in response, taking inspiration from either the form, tone or theme of the 'focus' poem. We'll each share our work for feedback. Although we all begin from the same poem, the same inspiration source, how we each respond is so different, wonderfully nuanced. There is a variation that I feel is oft not discussed in relation to writers of colour, nor do I feel is it reflected as well as it could be in the small amount that is published.
Our group dynamic is equalitarian, full of chat and raucous laughter. This only changes when we are writing or listening to one another, the room falls silent. There is a deep respect between us that came naturally. I suspect it from knowing intimately what it feels like to not be listened to, to long being ignored.
As a collective we decided that we didn't want to be on any online platforms. Octavia has no Twitter account, no Facebook page. We felt that social media platforms were often unsafe spaces for women and people of colour. Taking a step away has been a great decision. We don't waste time taking photos, sharing updates about what we're doing. It's incredibly freeing to be able to switch the phone off, concentrate solely on writing, to being present with and for each other.
Octavia has given me a new dedication to poetry. Each of them inspire me to constantly turn the world over as one would a prism, to view it from endless angles and perspectives. They've made me see that the very act of coming together and writing is political. They are evidence that in number we can change things. Above all, Octavia has given me hope for the future of literature. We're recording and reciting our stories in the hope that they might heal, that they'll be passed on, published so that within half a generation they'll be no more little black or brown girls writing themselves white because that seemed to them the only option.
Octavia are: Amaal Said, Sunayana Bhargava, Amina Jama, Belinda Zhawi, Zahrah Sheikh, Aniali Barot, Ankita Saxena, Josette Joseph, Raheela Suleman, Rhonda Rhiannon, Tania Nwachukwu, Theresa Lola, Victoria-Anne Bulley, Sarah Lasoye, Virginia Joseph and Rena Minegishi.
What Collectivism Can Mean for Creative Women of Colour, a voice from within Octavia: Sunayana Bhargava
I came to Octavia as a woman with a lot of baggage. I grew up surrounded by a series of vivid, violent upheavals within my family and extended family over a period of years. I slowly began to understand how violence and difficulty shaped me differently, uniquely, as a girl and then a woman. I learnt about the futility of fighting back with fists, talking back with my tongue and I steadily directed all my force inwards to understand how I could recover some stability outside of the house I came from. I wrote because it was the easiest way to document. It was the only way I could close in on the gap between my experiences and memory. But in my poetry, I remember skirting around precise writing for years. I could not bear to write out my personal history, I didn't dare make it finite, I didn't dare separate it from my body. I was probably scared that writing would render it smaller, compact, fewer words than I imagined for it, with less depth than when it was in my stomach, when all my organs were feeling an invasive suction towards it. It might look small, a crumb, a kidney stone. Apparently, objects feel ten times bigger when they are inside the mouth. I think this is also true of words.
Octavia as a poetry 'space' feels apt, because above all, that is what it gives me: space. I get to listen to other women speaking about their experiences, frankly and honestly. We can discuss damage without being defined by it. We can explore themes of love, loss, politics and womanhood as we move through them in the world. Talking within the walls of Octavia is freeing - there is no censorship, there is no sense of a quota for "those poems" "devastating poems", when this is said it shows a complete unwillingness to recognise my humanity beyond grief. I don't feel tokenised in a room full of other women of colour. I don't get paranoid about voyeurism as I would with men. Frank poems about sexuality do not render me sexualised in the company of other women writers. Octavia has taught me that collectivism is only meaningful if the goal is to showcase strength in numbers rather than as a force for competition. Because we all amplify each other, we are so strong as a group. We are all on the same page and intend to fill it well.
Sunayana Bhargava is a 22-year-old British-Indian poet and astrophysicist based in Brighton. Her writing explores themes of trauma, separation, home and the body. Her work has been featured in Bloodaxe Books' anthology of women's poetry, Spectra and The This Magazine.
Octavia is a poetry collective for women of colour led by Rachel Long and housed at Southbank Centre. Octavia is performing at WOW (Women of the World) Festival, supported by Bloomberg, on Sunday 12 March.
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