As a published author she is now using her influence to inspire and shift the traditional literary landscape. As a woman of colour, she is passionate about bringing change to her young readers by supporting other BME authors into being published and creating characters and stories that represent society as a whole. Jasmine in not interested in telling stories of black pain or struggle. She wants to weave fantastical stories that go beyond stereotypes.
A battered and tattered 1985 edition of Peace at Last by Jill Murphy
“I adored this book as a child. Looking back, I wonder if I was attracted to the simplicity and middle-class cosiness shown in that very suburban setting. It was very different in setting to the North London Flat I grew up in with my mother. My mother instilled a love of reading in me and the flats were five minutes away from the local library. That library was absolutely key to my development and love of books. I think books are a key to aspiration. I came from a single parent family, grew up in social housing and my outcome is vastly different to what may have been predicted. The proximity of where I lived to a library was important. Those librarians would help me and gave me a diet of books. I was really forged in that library. That is where I became who I am and where I got to read about other people and their lives.”
Letter from my Tutor, August 2000
“This is a letter from my tutor at Oxford written in the summer before my second year. There is a lot said and unsaid in it. My first year at Oxford was very difficult and I passed my first-year exams in Old English by the skin of my teeth. The thing is, I thought getting into Oxford had been a struggle [my school refused to support my application and I went to interviews completely underprepared] but trying to catch up and keep up with students who had a very different schooling background to me was tough.
I hadn’t done languages at GCSEs, which you’re meant to have when you apply. I went to a secondary school in Haringey where teachers really supported me. I then moved school for A Levels to Cockfosters. They didn’t know me, and I was always late. I didn’t think Oxbridge was for me. I wasn’t selected by school to apply although a careers officer encouraged me. I called Lady Margaret Hall College and they were so welcoming. Yet my school wouldn’t support me, and I was utterly unprepared for the interviews. There is a flexibility though by Oxford tutors when they see a spark in someone. There were three black students in the entire college at undergraduate level and I stuck out.
My mum was worried that I wouldn’t fit in and she was anxious but my open day and interviews had been positive and so I wasn’t worried even when I had had my offer. Then I was watching University Challenge. I saw two Oxford colleges and the people on the TV who were so different, and I said I couldn’t go. I had a meltdown. My mum was then the one who said that I could do this and supported and encouraged me.
I always wanted to write. It was only once I started working in publishing that I had the confidence to start writing because then you see that writers are wholly normal people.
Publishing presented its own challenges in terms of how undiverse it was, but Oxford was a great training ground for working in publishing and instilled a cast iron confidence in me.”
Collection of 2012 Book Programme Festivals
“I have been invited to a number of book festivals as a children’s author (I have published three under my own name) and I have written fifteen other books and I also now write television scripts.
I was on a literary festival panel with Philip Pullman, one of my childhood heroes. He wasn’t a fan of my book [horror was not his thing] but was very gracious about it. We were at the Sheldonian in Oxford. Someone asked a very complex and typically ‘Oxford’ question and neither I nor the other panel member were sure how to tackle it. Philip could, and answered with grace.
I got mistaken for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in the Green Room at Hay literary festival. Mistaken identity is an occupational hazard of being black on the literary scene!”
Invitation to Buckingham Palace
Jasmine says the monarchy can engender mixed feelings for some people from the Caribbean and the Commonwealth. She did though enjoy her invitation to tea with the Queen at Buckingham Palace – making her mother and grandmother very proud.
“As part of the celebration of Dickens’s bicentenary I was invited to Buckingham Palace as I had written a novel called Oliver Twisted. An amazing lady called Wendy Cooling got me on the guest list – she founded the flagship national programme of the charity BookTrust, which puts books into the hands of babies and toddlers, to encourage a lifelong love of reading.
I met the Queen and had a little chat with Prince Phillip. I pitched Tim Burton my novel over drinks in the hopes he might want the film rights. I did not do it well. It was kind of embarrassing but taught me something invaluable – always have your elevator pitch ready!”
Inspiration in Books
As a published author Jasmine is now using her influence to inspire and shift the traditional literary landscape. As an author and as a woman of colour she is passionate about bringing change to the world of publishing and making it more inclusive. Jasmine remembers how the photograph of her idol, singer and performer Grace Jones, artfully and powerfully posed on the cover of her 1985 vinyl album, Island Life, had a tremendous influence on her. She had Grace as a child, as someone otherworldly and fantastical and today she thinks children also need characters in books they can identify with. Jasmine remembers another quote which has inspired her thinking:
“Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created and recreated by the author.”
Multicultural Education scholar Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, 1990. Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom, 6(3), ix-xi.is.
Jasmine says, “Some books are a window and it’s a view into another world and others are a mirror and you get to see yourself. As a child of colour the opportunities to see yourself reflected wholly are far, far fewer but with the right light you might catch a glimpse of yourself in the window.”
Today, she says,
“BME children in books shouldn’t be depicted only with struggle and pain. They should just be about walking down the street and catching a glimpse of a dinosaur and having an adventure. That’s what I want to change.”
Talking about Grace
“I enjoy her music, but I own this record because this album cover is a work of art, as is Grace Jones. She is outer worldly and a piece of fantasy. It was important that I got to see a black woman in that fantastical space growing up. I actually got to speak to her on the phone. My sister saw her in the airport and told her what a fan I was. My sister called me, I answered the phone and Grace Jones was on the other end!
Grace Jones in her own unique way has inspired me to create characters of colour that get to have their own adventures and that is why I founded Storymix https://www.storymix.co.uk/ . In the UK only four percent of children’s books have a protagonist of colour, when thirty three percent of the school aged children come from a BME background. Only two percent of children’s book creators [illustrators and writers] come from a BME background. I’m trying to change that. Storymix is a book incubator which supports and nurtures writers of colour to write for children in the most joyful and exciting ways possible.
There is so much to talk about around inclusivity and writing competitions. We need concrete ways to work with all children’s writers. In publishing, black and Asian writers have to be perfect before they even begin. But we have to let them fail first. They need that muscle and stamina and practice to get it wrong then right. We shouldn’t have to hothouse new authors. There should be a free flow of talent, but it isn’t happening. I hope Storymix will help change that.”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mxslhFjgano&feature=youtu.be interview with Oxford University
Black History Month top 100 [find Jasmine at number 93]
https://vimeo.com/29614663 Animation about Jasmine and the importance of libraries
Jasmine’s creative social enterprise: www.storymix.co.uk
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