Following on from last week’s Bimini Bon Boulash event, on 20 October UEA Live welcomed three distinct voices from #Merky Books. Since 2018, #Merky Books has been an established Penguin Random House imprint curated by British musician Stormzy, dedicated to publishing all forms of writing from a new generation of voices; #Merky uplifts under-represented voices and narratives. Representing #Merky Books at UEA Live were Jade LB, author of the 2000s viral hit Keisha the Sket; Jyoti Patel, winner of the 2021 #Merky Books New Writers’ Prize; and #Merky’s Senior Commissioning Editor, Lemara Lindsay-Prince. Joining them on stage as chair was UEA Live Co-Director and UEA Creative Writing Lecturer KR Moorhead.
Lemara Lindsay-Price was the first to speak about her experiences with #Merky Books since she became Senior Commissioning Editor in November 2019. In her role, Lindsay-Prince collates work for the imprint and shares ideas with the authors, influencing the direction and shape of each publication. Through this, she allows authors to share their unique narratives and prepare for a wider audience. She describes the epithet of #Merky Books when she says the imprint not only opens a space for underrepresented voices in publishing, but “kicks down the door”. The imprint understands the value of the stories its authors tell, and provides an opportunity to writers who would otherwise be unable to access the world of publishing and writing.
The focus of the panel then turned to Jyoti Patel, UEA graduate and winner of the 2021 New Writers’ Prize for #Merky Books, whose debut novel Six of One will be released in early 2023. Jyoti Patel described her experience with #Merky Books and the New Writers’ Prize, which required a 1000-word submission. She felt the agents at #Merky were the first to truly understand and see the nuances of her writing. Patel explained that without the validation and push given by her longlisting, then shortlisting, then winning of the prize, she would not have realised that her writing ‘has legs,’ and would not have pursued writing as a career until much later in life. Her debut novel, Six of One, is inspired directly by her experiences as a Gujarati-British individual. In her novel, she explores the intersections of her mixed-race identity through two distinct narratives: one of a second-generation mother in the 80s, and another exploring mirrored experiences in post-Brexit Britain. Patel explained that one of her main influences were her attempts to seek out her own voice and identity within pre-established literature, and being unable to find an author that reflected her experiences. As she had no other book to turn to and explore her identity, she decided to write her own, providing a book that fills that gap for future generations.
Jade LB, too, is an author under #Merky Books, and is the original author of anonymous viral phenomenon Keisha The Sket. Jade LB described the original process of writing on a laptop in 2005 when she was just thirteen; without internet at home, she used the laptop solely to write, influenced by her love of reading. She mentions her enjoyment of Jaqueline Wilson and her representation of dysfunctional, unstable home situations. However, she never felt her own narrative or voice was represented in these stories.
Jade LB didn’t realise the influence of her writing until 2010, when the inception of Twitter revealed to her the conversations that had been spreading about Keisha since it was first posted to the internet. Naturally, the horror of realising your short story, written at thirteen about the experiences of an older teenager, made Jade LB want to hide away from the fame her story had generated. It was not until 2019 that she began to accept the younger Jade LB’s story, and this acceptance came directly from #Merky Books.
Keisha The Sket, now available from #Merky Books, is not simply a printed version of the original text. Instead, Jade LB provides a second text, ‘Keisha Revisited,’ in which she rewrites the events of the original narrative in more standardised English rather than text speak. When asked about why she decided to not only revisit but rewrite her narrative, Jade LB explains that she hoped to make the narrative deeper and more accessible, to provide a story of someone that not only ‘sounds and looks like [her]’ but with the additional context of her Politics degree and her age, now past that of Keisha. She, too, wanted a true ending for her character, as she never intended to conclude the narrative when she first wrote it. In ‘Keisha Revisited,’ she hopes to provide an authentic ending to the story, one that portrays the truth of the Black experience in Britain. Jade LB, ultimately, wants Keisha’s story to not be traumatic but a ‘preamble to a… normal life.’
Once the panel had concluded, the floor opened to audience questions, and one posed to the panel was simple, but crucial: If #Merky didn’t exist, where would you be? Jyoti Patel responds that she would not be sitting alongside Lemara and Jade LB today if it weren’t for the opportunities the imprint had provided. Not only did the prize give her the drive to complete her novel, which she had no intentions to finish any time soon, but she was given the opportunity to speak at festivals and on podcasts about her craft and her passion in writing, which is almost unheard of for an author who is yet to release their debut. Jade LB, too, explains how the story of Keisha would never have been given the focus and alignment it deserved without the influence of #Merky Books. Lemara is quick to agree and admits she would still be proudly working in retail . However, she is proud to be able to stand up for bold, emerging voices, especially those with less experience in publishing, and those who have a story that is desperate to be told.
For #Merky Books, their mission comes from their honesty and their belief that under-represented voices not only deserve to be heard, but need to be heard. As Lemara states in the closing moments of the panel, “You have to [make space] to stand out.”
Oliver Shrouder was raised in Grantham, twice voted the most boring town in England, with his Newfoundland, Rosie. Now studying an MA in Poetry at the University of East Anglia, Oliver writes about birds, avocados, and the meaning of life. These days, he spends his time exploring the Norfolk Broads, in the hope that the air will blow Grantham’s smog from his hair.