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Chatting with Kate Morrison, Author: A Book of Secrets


Something special on the blog today, readers: I'm thrilled to be chatting to Kate Morrison, author of stunning debut A Book of Secrets, as part of its Random Things Tour. Join us as we talk about historical research, women's independence and racism in Elizabethan England.

"A Book of Secrets is the story of a woman named Susan Charlewood living in Elizabethan England. Born in what is now Ghana, Susan is enslaved by the Portuguese but later rescued by British sailors, who bring her to England. Once in England, she is raised in an English Cathoic household.

When Susan comes of age, the family marry her off to an older Catholic man, John Charlewood. Charlewood runs a printing press and uses it to supply the Papist nobility with illegal Catholic texts and foment rebellion amongst the Catholic underclass. When Charlewood, Susan takes over the business and uses her new position to find out more about her origins. 

A look at racial relationships at the beginning of the eve of the transatlantic slave trade, A Book of Secrets is a revealing and compelling glimpse into a fraught time."



Hi Kate! So glad to have you with us on The Brown Brontë, talking about your wonderful novel, A Book of Secrets. I had so many questions while I was reading, and I’m thrilled that you agreed to answer some of them today.

I enjoyed A Book of Secrets immensely. It must have taken a tremendous amount of research. How did you approach your research for this novel, and what sources were particularly useful?

Thank you, I am so glad you enjoyed it! Yes, I did a great deal of research over many years. The key lesson I have learned is that it is always best to speak to experts as well as burying your nose in a book, because they can guide you far more quickly to crucial information. Never be scared to ask for help, as scholars are often very generous with their time & keen to talk about their area of interest! The internet is also an incredible resource.

[...] I came across an article about Black Tudors by Marika Sherwood, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. I got in touch with Marika, and she referred me on to two PHD students, Miranda Kaufmann and Onyeka Nubia, who were researching Africans in Tudor England. Both generously talked to me about their research and Miranda also shared her thesis and a reading list of key primary and secondary sources.

Miranda’s thesis was a hugely useful resource, as it formed the basis for her later book Black Tudors: The Untold Story and gave me a detailed outline of Black lives in Tudor times. She also introduced me to Michael Ohajuru, whose John Blanke Project has done a huge amount to raise people’s awareness about the Black Tudor trumpeter. Another great resource was the Guildhall Library’s database of Black and Asian Lives discovered in the archives, which has records of births, marriages and baptisms from the 16th century onwards (now available here.) [...]

For my research into the print trade, I’m indebted to the scholars at Bath Spa University’s ‘Book, Text and Place 1550 – 1700’ research centre...I was also able to go with students on a trip to the Bodleian Library print room, where I could see early modern printing presses in action and have a go myself. 

The character of Suky, or Susan, is wonderful – she’s so intelligent and resilient; is she based on any historical figure?

She is not based on any one person, though I took evidence from various sources to build her character. Susan’s husband in the novel, John Charlewood, was a real person and he did have a wife called Alice Charlewood. The trajectory of her career is the same as Susan’s – Charlewood died in 1593 and Alice took over the business for several months until she remarried. She wasn’t in sole charge for long but there is evidence that she knew exactly what she was doing.

It’s clear that many Elizabethan women were also highly resourceful and intelligent, from those running other businesses or protecting their interests in property, to Catholic members of the aristocracy who concealed priests and secret printing presses and risked their lives to fight for their faith.

But really, Susan is quite her own character. I had a clear vision of her when I began writing this book: a Black woman standing in the dim light of her own London bookshop, wearing a mourning dress. Someone confident in herself and happy to be running her own business. That’s what I was working towards, but it takes Suky a long time to reach that place of confidence. When the book begins, she is far less sure of herself. [...]

I was also intrigued by the character of Joan Jugge – she seems quite savvy and independent, running her dead husband’s printing business, even within the social bounds that she has to live in. How usual was this for the time?

I actually just wrote a blog about this for Kate Mosse’s #womeninhistory campaign. Women could not own businesses in their own right but widows were allowed to carry on their husbands’ print or publishing business, either until they remarried another member of the Stationers’ Guild or until a son was able to take over.

Joan Jugge’s husband was a former Queen’s Printer so he held some important monopolies, and Joan carried on printing after his death in 1577 until at least 1584. I felt Joan could have been a notable person within the Stationers company due to her husband’s former status, despite being a woman, and she was clearly highly capable of running the business.

Other printing widows include Joan Orwin, who printed at least 68 books after her third husband’s death, and Alice Charlewood herself. Single or married women could not own their own property, everything belonged to their father or husband by law, but widows could be rich in their own right. I felt that some women would probably have preferred to stay merry widows rather than marrying again!

Susan deals with a fair amount of prejudice on account of her race - I suppose we’d call them microaggressions. But her interracial marriage itself does not seem to be a social taboo in the way that it would have been in America or in Britain in more recent times. What do you think are the differences between what we understand as racism today, and attitudes towards characters like Susan in the 16th century?

I’d say that while there absolutely was prejudice towards Black people in the 16th century, the difference is that Britain had not yet embarked on full-blown colonialism. It was that which begot and entrenched the system of white supremacy and racial hierarchy that has left us such a horrendous legacy. Elizabethan people were xenophobic, and anti-blackness is clearly present in texts that refer to Africans, but there is not the same sense of de-humanisation you find later when the Empire is in full swing.

Britain’s relationship with Africa at this time was largely based on trade in goods, and Queen Elizabeth was keen to woo representatives of some African kingdoms. The Guildhall archives include a record of the baptismof a King’s son, Dederi Jaquoah, from modern-day Liberia, who has been sent to England by his father to learn English and facilitate trade. Attempted forays into the slave trade were mostly thwarted by the dominance of the Spanish and Portuguese. The key point of difference was between Christians and ‘heathens’ and then Protestants and Catholics, rather than the colour of your skin.

As a baptised Christian with a place in a noble household, and then a married woman, Susan has a clear place in society that provides protection. The fact that she is secretly Catholic would likely have exposed her to greater danger at this time than being Black.  There are several examples of marriages between English and African people in the archives, and there were enough African people living and working in London at the time for them to have been a familiar part of a cosmopolitan city that was also home to ‘strangers’ from the Continent including former Jews forced into conversion by the Spanish.

Nevertheless, I am sure that for the Black people living in London there would have been a sense of alienation and trauma, given that many of them would have been violently torn away from their homes, and that the mostly white city could be a hostile and lonely place. Having legal rights and a place in society does not equal full acceptance.

As a white author writing a black character, I felt you were incredibly sensitive and sympathetic to the nuances of being a black person in a mainly white society. How did you ensure Susan’s experiences seemed authentic?

Thank you, it means a lot to hear this. I was very keen to get this right and was helped along the way by several generous people. The author and feminist activist Esuantsiwa Goldsmith (who is also published with Jacaranda) spoke to me about her life experience growing up Mixed Race in very white neighbourhoods in post-war England, and reconnecting with her Ghanaian father and heritage later in life. She gave me great insight into how it feels to be the only person of colour in mostly white surroundings and the severe mental struggles it can cause., as well as the power and release of getting in touch with your origins.

I am also very thankful that A Book of Secrets was published by Jacaranda, which is one of the few Black-owned publishers in the UK. All the staff are women of colour and my book was edited by Valerie Brandes, who runs Jacaranda, and editor Cherise Lopes-Baker. Both edited my work with great sensitivity and care and communicated any points where I needed to work harder at conveying Susan’s experience as a Black woman.

While there are points of common humanity that link all people, which helped me find the connection with Susan, there are details of her lived experience that I would not presume to know. I think that’s why it’s very important for writers who explore other cultures and identities in their work to approach this with respect and humility. Never assume you can jump in without doing the research and talking to the people you are writing about. There are some helpful articles on this by Kit de Waal and Jeannette Ng among others.

A Book of Secrets was longlisted for the Diverse Book Awards 2020. 2020 was of course a big year in putting race and diversity on the agenda. Do you think the publishing world is making enough progress in amplifying underrepresented voices and stories? What more could be done?

Sometimes it feels like we are taking one step forward and one back. I feel that there has been a definite change in the way that publishers are now seeing SOME books by under-represented authors as bankable. Will it last or not? There is still a very long way to go.

The CLPE Reflecting Realities reports show that only 7 % of children’s books published between 2016 and 2019 feature ethnic minority main characters, while in 2019 33.5% of the school population were of ethnic minority origin. Last year’s Spread the Word report emphasised that publishing is still very white and middle class, with entrenched ideas about what will sell to an imagined, equally white and middle class audience.

It does feel like some genuine changes has taken place, with successes like Queenie, The Confessions of Frannie Langton and Girl, Woman, Other, plus non-fiction work by Black authors hitting the bests-seller lists. But this needs to be built on and sustained. There was a similar push back in the 70s and 80s by publishers like Margaret Busby, which did not result in long-term change by big publishers.

A lot of the push for better representation recently has come from small presses like Knights Of, Peepal Tree, and Jacaranda (which published 20 books by 20 Black British authors in 2020), as well as initiatives like the Jhalak Prize and individual people (I’m thinking of Sunny Singh, Nikesh Shukla, Darren Chetty & Karen Sands O’Connor among others) shouting about the need for change. The excellence of the Jacaranda author list is testament to the fact that we need more truly inclusive publishers championing amazing writers who get ignored by the mainstream![..]

One of the key things all businesses should do is look at their culture and their hires to really build in change. If you’re making ‘diverse’ hires at entry level but your management is all white & middle class, you still have a problem. ...Why would you ignore an opportunity to reach new audiences and sell more books?! Organisations need to start thinking of inclusivity as a positive and beneficial thing, rather than something they need to do a bit of in order to look good.

Are you writing anything new at the moment? Is there another book that we can look forward to?

I am now working on a novel set in Bronze Age Britain which is a whole new challenge. There is no documentary evidence from this time, so all the information comes from archaeology. I got interested in the period as there are some incredible Bronze Age sites near where I live in Sussex.

I’ve had less time to write this year with lockdowns and children at home, but I have gone on a lot of walks, trying to think myself back 3000 years and imagine the lives of prehistoric people. It’s been great to write about the place I live, where I can walk the bones of the landscape.

I would also like to return to Elizabethan England at some point and write another novel in that setting; maybe catching up with Susan and finding out what she has been doing in the meantime.

That sounds fascinating -  I can't wait to see where you go with those. Thank you again for joining us on The Brown Brontë!

Thank you so much for having me! 

NB: This interview has been edited for length. 

Thank you to Random Things Tours and Jacaranda Books.

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Join the conversation at The Brown Brontë's Book Club .





Comments

  1. Huge thanks for the blog tour support x

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    Replies
    1. You're welcome Anne! Thanks for the opportunity to read and share this wonderful book.

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