Conversations with women who empower is a quarterly interview series where women of African heritage share their views on work and life.
The series highlights women whose work empowers and inspires in its skilfulness, ethos, creativity and impact and who also are women that I can picture myself having a tête-à-tête with.
I’m delighted to feature Precious Williams, an author, journalist and writing teacher. Her first book, the memoir Precious (Bloomsbury, 2010) was described by USA Today as “a startlingly powerful memoir that upends every expectation about race, class, gender and ambition.” A former Contributing Editor at Elle, Precious’s essays, feature articles and celebrity interviews have also appeared in the Financial Times, Glamour, Marie Claire, New York magazine, the New York Post, Wallpaper, the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph. Her essay about hip-hop journalism, Two Dollars A Word, was anthologised in the book Sex and Sensibility (Simon & Schuster, 2004). Precious read English Language & Literature at Oxford University and also holds a Postgraduate Diploma in Journalism from the London College of Printing. She is at work on her next book, a novel, and she is an Ambassador for the charity Africans Unite Against Child Abuse.
Precious, who is also a real life friend, and I catch up on writing, life and the intersection of the two in a great conversation.
Hi Precious, let’s jump right in. How would you describe your approach to life, what motivates you and what qualities do you strive to maintain in your life?
Hi Minna, thank you so much for inviting me to this virtual interview ☺. I am a big fan of the MsAfropolitan blog and the woman behind it.
There are three elements that are vitally important to me and which dominate and guide the course of my life: love, authenticity and communication. For me, the three are intertwined. The very second I learn something new (or new to me) that I feel is useful, necessary and/or profound in some way, I absolutely have to share it. It’s a compulsion I’ve had since I was at primary school, which is when I first began writing. At least once a week I have to jump out of the bathtub mid-shower to write down a fragment of truth or a new realization or thought that has dripped into my head. That’s why I write. I’m not only speaking of essays, articles, books and so on but also the many emails and text messages exchanged between me and my daughter, and other people I love, every day, sometimes long into the night.
And how do your life views and your work views merge? Apart from your journalism, research and novels, I’m thinking especially of you as a memoirist. Your self-titled memoir, “Precious”, is among other things, a raw and honest account of your experiences in foster care. Does writing about yourself openly blur the lines between your professional and personal aspirations or does it make it easier to distinguish the two?
My life views and work views are as one. I spend the majority of my time reading, writing and communicating, whether I am at work or at play. Over the years I’ve had conversations with artists who’ve sometimes spoken about the moment they ‘became’ a writer or the day they finally dared call themselves a singer or dancer or painter. But I feel that writers (and other artists) are born not made. Obviously we can – and must – seek to polish our craft. Eventually becoming published (or produced, exhibited, etc) is a great accomplishment. But I do not believe it is external validation or the ability to make a living at it that makes one a writer (or painter, or singer, or dancer). I believe we are who we are at birth and that we know who we are if we dare to look.
As for writing about oneself in a very overt way (as opposed to simply drawing on one’s experiences and turning them into fiction)– I have found the process messy, terrifying, liberating and, most of all, necessary. As Chinua Achebe (may he rest in peace) said, “Until the lion tells his side of the story, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” I grew up feeling I didn’t even have the right to tell my own story. Happily, to even write that line, ‘I didn’t have the right to tell my own story’ feels absurd to me now, but as a girl, and as a younger woman, I felt silenced. To tell your story –or indeed any story – through your own specific lens, in your voice, suggests that you truly deserve to exist and to be heard. That feels gorgeously unapologetic. Growing up and growing into womanhood, I was fed so many erroneous, negative stories about women, about black women in particular, even about me as an individual. I had a voice and a story to tell but I felt choked by the condescending attitudes so many people I encountered had towards women and girls, towards people of colour, towards Africans, towards immigrants. I was raised to believe that 1) as an African, female, foster-child, daughter of immigrants, I didn’t have the right to voice my own story (instead I should shut up, keep my head down, and feel grateful I had a roof over my head and – unlike the children depicted in the Live Aid video – food in my stomach). And that 2) nobody had any interest in what I – and others like me – might have to say anyway.
The Ghanaian writer, Ama Ata Aidoo once said, “The heart has a way of going on its own way without listening to the head”. What does this quote bring to mind? Has your writing career been heart, head or both?
You simply won’t seriously pursue a career as a writer for all that long unless it’s your heart – not your logic – guiding you. Anyone ruled by their head would surely jump ship and go and get a so-called proper job with a pension, regular paycheck and the possibility of promotion and pay rises. Writing can feel unhealthily solitary – even for an introvert like me. There’s relatively little feedback (I suppose getting published at all is feedback in itself that you’re doing something right). It’s a career that calls for a logic-defying amount of self-belief. Probably, you will start to question whether you are writing for a living, or simply writing for a pittance. And yet for me, writing for a living (or for a pittance) is the most liberating, audacious, fulfilling act imaginable. It definitely fills my heart. And I am cheering on my daughter (aged 22) who always said she wanted a ‘sensible’ job but is now following her heart and pursuing a career as a writer herself, and excelling at it…
What qualities would you encourage young African women aspiring to be writers to acquire and what has been your biggest challenge as a writer?
I’ve already touched on one of the most essential qualities a writer needs, in my experience, and that is intact self-belief in the face of indifference. Many/most (all?) writers are skilled observers, moving through life with their antennae up, soaking up snippets of conversation, trying to tune into the emotions and motivations and situations and thoughts of others, constantly. And yet to sustain a career as a writer you need to remain indifferent to the occasional (or frequent) indifference of publishing professionals and even readers, towards your work. How do you remain immune to rejection and indifference if you’re thin-skinned by nature? I’ll tell you when I find out J
My hope is that every African woman writer will enjoy the freedom of being judged by the quality of her work. The reality may be different and it’s possible that you will feel ‘othered’ in an industry (publishing) that tends to be quite monolithic in terms of class (middle-class) and race (white). It is up to you to decide who you are, as a writer and as a human being. If you let anybody else decide for you, you may feel frustrated, even suffocated.
So, I think the bottom line is to accept that a writing career can, and quite probably will, feel painful at times. To have the heart to continue with it, writing must simply be crucial to your existence. And lastly, but perhaps most importantly, be a passionate, prolific reader.
Who are the people that inspire you in your field and what have you learnt from their work? Can you share one of your favorite books of all time and what makes it that?
There are so, so many writers to whom I am so grateful and whose words have enriched my life in so many ways. A few of them are Buchi Emecheta, Chester Himes, Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, Hanif Kureishi, Martin Amis, Maya Angelou, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Some people have a particular song or album that captures certain life moments or relationships or challenges. I tend to equate particular life transitions and notable moments with certain books. One such book is ‘The Buddha of Suburbia’ (Hanif Kureishi). The first time I read it was in 1990 and I’d just dropped out of my A Level course and become a teenage single mother. I do not remember how I came to acquire my copy of Kureish’s book, but when I read it, initially I could barely believe that such a book had come into existence. I felt it was the most audacious, satisfying text I had ever read. I believe it must have been the first book I’d read about the life experiences of a British-born young person of colour growing up in England, nursing ‘unrealistic’ dreams and ambitions, experiencing the same racist ignorance I’d experienced. ‘The Buddha of Suburbia’ opened so many doors – literally, in the sense that so many British writers of colour, including Zadie Smith, credit Kureishi with paving the way for them as writers. But the book also opened doors for me on an emotional level. It showed me that the trials of adolescence can morph into something powerful and creative and it taught me that I have every right to exist, to speak up, and to write. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that within little more than a year of reading ‘The Buddha of Suburbia,’ I’d had my first article published, landed an internship at Vogue magazine and won a place at Oxford University.
I have a feeling you would have landed there regardless. Thanks for a great interview and for your inspiring work
To find out more about Precious, visit her site or ask a question below.