Black Somerset author on tackling decades of racism in the county

"I wanted to tell stories of marginalisation from our green - and not always - pleasant land"

A black writer has described her experiences of racism in the West Country, as well as grappling with the after effects of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Louisa Adjoa Parker, 48, is of English and Ghanaian heritage and lives in South Somerset, having spent the last 35 years moving around the West Country.

Mrs Parker moved to Devon in 1985 and described how “it was so racist, it was unbelievable”.

She said: “Kids in our street, we were friends with them, but they totally racially abused us, it happened all the time.”

Mrs Parker has now included this and other experiences in a short story collection entitled ‘Stay with me’.

The first story in the collection is inspired by her relationship as a 17-year-old with a partner who became violent when they were living together in a squat in Devon.

Domestic violence is a theme that looms large in the collection, as something Mrs Parker both grew up with and experienced herself in relationships.

“We should be talking about it more as a society because one to two women in a week get murdered by their partners or ex partners, and I just think that’s unacceptable,” she said, also noting how this form of violence has only increased during the lockdowns.

Mrs Parker lived in Lyme Regis while raising her children as a single mother.

The front cover of ‘Stay with me’

The West Country setting for Mrs Parker’s fiction provided an opportunity to contrast the beauty of the landscape with what she described as the “dark” subject matter.

Mrs Parker said: “We don’t really get a diverse representation of the West Country in literature or the media. I think it’s very one dimensional.

“If you watch West Country actors on TV, they always have a Bristolian accent and it’s just this representation of country bumpkins. It doesn’t explore what it’s really like to live in these places, particularly if you’re seen as different.

“I love the West Country, it’s absolutely stunning, but it does hide the fact that there’s a lot of deprivation.”

Mrs Parker noted how creative writing is only a small part of what she does, as she is is also co-director of The Inclusion Agency, which supports various organisations for equality, diversity and inclusion.

She does diversity training for organisations such as Bristol University while also delivering talks on rural racism and black history.

She said: “I think it’s really important that even if we do get to a place where there’s no racism, it will still be important to talk about it historically, in the same way that we talk about the Second World War and all the terrible things that went on, as a way to stop ourselves getting back into that situation.”

When discussing her experience of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations last spring, Mrs Parker said the movement left her in two minds after decades of experiencing racism, very often from white friends.

She said: “I was overwhelmed with people getting in touch asking me to do stuff – hundreds of emails.

“On the one hand, it was positive what was happening. On the other hand, it was extremely upsetting and traumatising.”

“Suddenly for the first time, I had all these white people saying, we’ve just noticed racism, what can you do to help me fix it.

“I’ve been doing this work for 20 odd years now, why have you suddenly just noticed because it’s trending on Twitter?

“I felt really hurt but also it was traumatising because I realised that I’ve carried this with me since I was a little girl.

“I’m 50 next year, so that’s half a century of dealing with racism.”

Despite the omnipresence of news of the protests at the time, Mrs Parker described how she avoided it for a number of weeks, while she sought to calm her anger over the situation.

She said: “It’s positive obviously, but I spoke to others as well who do this kind of work in Devon and they said the same thing. We felt emotionally overwhelmed and distressed.”

Mrs Parker has now lived in three counties in the West Country and noted how much the region has changed over the decades, both in terms of attitudes and diversity.

She said: “I think a lot of people and organisations have noticed racism for the first time, and really want to do something about it, so that’s been a definite shift, but I think generally, we’re a bit behind in terms of terminology and talking about race.

“I think people get very awkward talking about racism and race.

“There’s a lot of work to be done, but I think there’s definitely been a shift towards a greater understanding and wanting to actually do something to make a difference.”

When comparing the three counties of Somerset, Devon and Dorset, Mrs Parker described a sense that in Somerset there isn’t the same “anti-racist drive”.

She said: “I think generally I haven’t come across that many people doing the work in Somerset, but it might just be that I haven’t met them.

“For example, I haven’t come across any black history research done in Somerset outside of Bristol.”

Mrs Parker is already gearing up for future projects. She has written half of her memoir and has a pamphlet of poetry slated for publication in June, which pays tribute to a close friend she lost to suicide two years ago.

Despite the difficult themes Mrs Parker explores in her work, she finds the act of writing to be enormously beneficial.

She said: “I really hope that any readers of my work will find a way to connect with those characters, whether or not they’ve experienced those exact things.

“I feel like we live in a very judgmental blaming society at the moment and I’d like to show that we’re all human and we’ve all been through difficult things.

“I really hope that it will help people have an understanding for people who are different to themselves.”

Mrs Parker’s debut short story collection ‘Stay with me’ was published by Colenso Books at the end of December 2020 and is available here.

The official launch for the collection will take place online as part of an international literature event on March 8 from 6.30pm to 8pm.