By Heather Marks
SuAndi began her professional writing life in 1985 as a staff member at Culturewood, working alongside Lemn Sissay. At the same time SuAndi joined Manchester’s first Black women’s poetry collective, Blackscribe. Since then, SuAndi has made invaluable contributions to the artistic presence of Black Britain. Her written work ranges from plays to poetry to librettos, and she is a staunch advocate of Black artists, currently sitting as the Freelance Cultural Director of the Black Arts Alliance. In 1999, SuAndi was awarded an OBE for her contributions to the Black Arts sector,and an Honorary Doctorate from Lancaster University in 2015. Her play, The Story of M, has been performed around the world, and was recently reprised on the 27th January 2017 at Goldsmiths, University of London, as part of Aspirations and Representations: Looking Back to Travel Forward, to celebrate The Story of M‘s single edition publication by Oberon Books.
The Story of M was commissioned in 1994 by the Live Arts programmers Lois Kedan and Catherine Ugwu, for the Institute of Contemporary Arts. The play grew out of a section in a prior production, and following encouragement from Lois Kedan, SuAndi developed it into the play it is today. I don’t want to reveal too many details about the narrative in The Story of M, because to do so would take away from the extraordinary story SuAndi tells. The Story of M is an engrossing play which traverses the borders of race and nation, celebrating the tenacity of one woman to raise her children in the virulently racist society of mid-late 20th century Britain. The poems which follow after the play are a testament to the women in our lives – mothers, sisters, aunts, friends – whose strength and endurance is beautifully memorialised in poems like Lady Making, The Wig, and Aroma of Memory.
In the introduction to the single edition of The Story of M, Deirdre Osborne describes SuAndi’s play and poetry collection as a ‘Mothertext’:
‘Their inclusion extends the matrilineal sweep of The Story of M, of its sole speaker M (and all she symbolises) to collect heartrending, timeless, moments in womanhood where the mother is the poetic compass by which all bearings are set within each poem, bar one.’ (1)
The Story of M is a powerful piece of Black feminist theatre. SuAndi carves out a space to interrogate the assumptions of race, family aesthetics, cultural identity and inheritance. In The Story of M, characters refuse to be minimized. The Margaret we come to know is fierce, protective, and loyal to her children in the face of blood-boiling racism, and in the closing moment SuAndi changes from mother to daughter effortlessly. It is a performance of motherhood, of the ordinary-extraordinary women in our lives, and it is also a celebration about crossing those seemingly impassable lines of conflict, between skin colour and cultural identity, to draw on a diverse inheritance and stand firm in one’s sense of self.
SuAndi is no stranger to standing firm, especially when it comes to racism on all fronts. “I was at a friend’s dinner party, and there was a big lecture from a Jamaican woman about Africans liking fat women. About how they feed women, and I said, well if I lived in Nigeria I’d have ten husbands! And I think in those situations, where is this going? I ended up with this woman screaming at me, that I had to learn. To which I shouted back, “Well, I am first generation African, and I am taking my Nigerian arse home.”
“It is the ordinary stories that make the world go round.”
SuAndi is quick to interrogate racial discrimination, from both a white and Black stance. It is something which permeates The Story of M, and SuAndi does so by telling the story of an ordinary, extraordinary woman – Margaret, SuAndi’s mother. Discussing the importance of telling ‘ordinary’ stories, SuAndi says “Ordinary stories are the best stories. We’re not very good in England about communicating with strangers, but it is that conversation on the train – that you hear the most amazing life stories, from the people who lived those stories, the stories that don’t go into history books because history is his-story. Not her-story. Not our-story. So it is the ordinary stories that make the world go round.”
Reflecting on the ordinary-extraordinary story of Margaret, SuAndi presses deeper into the intersectional axes that cause some stories to be left by the wayside in the narration of history. “I think we write history books based on those that stand out. Nelson Mandela wasn’t the only one imprisoned for a long period in South Africa. But his name became the forum – we hook onto that. We talk about wars and generals, about great men, but not the ordinary plodding soldier. They are the stories that get left out. Years ago I wrote a poem called I Am An Ordinary Woman, Nothing Special. The end line says ‘I am just simply an ordinary, ordinary, extraordinary woman.’ I remember during the time of feminism – and I wasn’t an active feminist then – they were saying ‘if you’re on a university course, join our feminist society’, and I thought, ‘well what about the cleaners?’ That’s what I meant by ordinary and extraordinary.”
“It is the phoenix of the female spirit that will always rise and, like Sankofa, I will always remember to speak the names of other women gone to empower women of the future.”(2)
The poems at the end of The Story of M are a testament to these ordinary-extraordinary women, to the love, strength and inheritance they pass on. The poems shift between the perspective of mother and daughter, reflecting on the small things – whether it be a shared belly bulge or the familiar smell of coconut lotion – which invoke the ‘bloodstream of our inheritance’.(3) I ask SuAndi if she has a favourite poem. After a pause, SuAndi replies “Lady Making. Followed very closely by The Twin.”
My mother bleached
sheets that dazzled white
against the redness of her hands
Now I handle life in different shades –
the polished hue of manicured nails –
and thank my mother for all she did
to make a lady of her daughter. (4)
So, where to next for The Story of M? “I would love to do the show in Africa. That would be amazing. I think there is a negative attitude towards children of mixed heritage, especially towards their mother’s.” Distressing assumptions based on race, cultural identity, and family aesthetic is something which SuAndi achieves in The Story of M.
“I know exactly who I am –
I am a Black woman.
I am a mixed race woman.”(5)
The pride in her inheritance is something SuAndi carries with her constantly, even when accepting her Honorary Degree from Lancaster University in 2015: “As a child, I used to think my father was illiterate, when in truth he was bilingual. As indeed was my mum, as she spoke Liverpool Scouse and Standard English. But they only received basic schooling. By their collective effort they raised me to understand that wherever I went, I reflected and represented all Black people, in my character and my behaviour.”
Before SuAndi goes, I ask her a question I press to all writers I encounter – what are you reading? “Actually, I am trying to read – and not getting very far, I confess – Dinesh Allirajah’s book Scent. Din was the late chair of NBBA and my friend, and I miss him.”
The Story of M is part of a new EdExcel list of texts to be studied by A-Level English students, which draws solely from Black British literature. The new EdExcel list was devised by Dr. Deirdre Osborne, of Goldsmiths, University of London – the home of the Masters in Black British Writing – and will be introduced later this year in July 2017. The inclusion of Black British texts into the curricula is a welcome change, and one hopes that The Story of M will be picked up by student and teacher alike, for it has an emotional honesty and extraordinary history which holds great importance for our generation, especially if we are to progress into a more hopeful future.
The Story of M, by SuAndi, is available to purchase from Oberon Books at £9.99. https://www.oberonbooks.com/the-story-of-m.html
Catch SuAndi next in Birmingham on 16th February 2017, for ‘Race & Representation: Beyond Box Ticking’: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/race-representation-beyond-the-box-ticking-tickets-31635639048
- Deirdre Osborne, ‘Mothertext: Restoring the Mixed Matrilineal Routes to Heritage’, The Story of M (London: Oberon Books, 2017), p.10.
- SuAndi, The Story of M (London: Oberon Books, 2017), p.60.
- Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (London: Virago, 1977), p.246.
- SuAndi, ‘Lady Making’, The Story of M (London: Oberon Books, 2017), p.64.
- SuAndi, The Story of M (London: Oberon Books, 2017), p.55.