A Vivid Celebration of Identity in Black Ink

Article excerpt

Byline: By David Whetstone

An important new writers' group proclaims its existence with an October festival. David Whetstone meets Identity on Tyne founder Sheree Mack.

To the question "Where do you come from?" not everybody can respond with a quick and definite answer.

Sheree Mack drew her first breath in Bradford but her father was from Trinidad and her mother was born in Newcastle, daughter of a white Englishwoman and a black African, from Ghana.

Her colour alone speaks of something other than deep Geordie roots.

But Sheree says: "My mother's family have always lived in Newburn. Nan lives across there, my sister lives up the lane. We have been the only black family in Newburn for generations."

Sheree, now 32, was only 10 when her father died of leukaemia and her mother brought her and her sister to the Newcastle village beside the Tyne, a place of steep inclines where the shock of the Industrial Revolution on rural England can still be appreciated.

"I was brought up here," says Sheree, curled up in a chair in her compact but comfortable home. "I went to the school where I ended up teaching, Walbottle High School, but then it was a case of when I was 19, I went to London to do my degree and teacher training. When I had a child, I came back up here."

Last year Sheree, a poet, attained an MA in creative writing at Northumbria University and set up Identity on Tyne, a group for "writers of colour" from the region's black and ethnic minority communities.

The group will introduce itself to the wider world during October with a month-long festival called BlackWords, coinciding with the national Black History Month which celebrates the often overlooked achievements and contributions of black Britons.

Sheree is no black power activist. Indeed, she seems at pains at first to play down the part her colour has played in her life.

Asked if she was conscious of being different ( one of only two black children at school, the other being her sister ( she says she felt "definitely apart and different. However, I wasn't just black, I was also fat, so take your pick."

As a bookish kid, it was her reading choices that exacerbated her sense of otherness, and her reading influenced her writing. "A lot of my characters were always blonde and blue-eyed. They were the ones who got all the boyfriends."

A teacher pointed her towards Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize-winning Black American novelist. "It was the first book I found with a black girl in the text. I thought, wow, they exist! She feels the same way I feel."

In London, she experienced real culture shock. "I was in the majority. It was much easier there to access my cultural heritage. I set up a black women's writing group at university."

She went into teaching, keen to be a role model for black kids and to impart the benefits of her own "strict, West Indian upbringing". She taught at the multi-racial Lilian Bayliss School in London, enjoying the support of a largely black and Asian staff. …