Our chair, David Belbin, writes: It’s a pleasure to welcome the founder of Nottingham Black Archive and one of the original patrons of our UNESCO Creative Cities bid, Panya Banjoko. A writer and performance poet, she is currently a PhD student at NTU. Panya’s poetry has been broadcast on TV and radio. Her work has appeared in many anthologies including Penguin’s IC3 An Anthology of New Black Writing in Britain. Panya’s most recent collection is Some Things, published by Burning Eye Books in 2018.
I had long suspected I had hermetic tendencies, now here was my opportunity to put it to the test. So, after I had a wobble for 24 hours, worried about what this virus would do. After I had assembled my thoughts and accepted that this was not isolation but social distancing, which left a much better taste on my tongue, and after I had cleaned my home from top to bottom, reorganised my bedroom, and cast-off my bra (yay!), I found my groove. Away from it all. Away from deadlines, away from crowded trams, and buses which buckle under the weight of people, away from screaming alarm clocks. No more waiting, waiting for the clock to tick down, to strike five, to pick up my feet and board a bus, then tram, and plod the ten-minute journey home. My home has truly become my sanctuary, my solace… home sweet home. I love keeping my own time, marking my own pace, is this not utopia?
But for the thousands who have lost their lives, this could have been a magical time. And yes, that gnaws at me. I scream at the TV during daily briefings. I question our nation’s muddled response, could we have done better to reduce the loss of lives, the suffering? I exercise my frustration through daily tweets. I’ve convinced myself tweeting is better than doing nothing at all, that I am doing something, just a little something for those without a voice. And in-between the online activism I write. And in between the writing I facetime my grandchildren. Moments of absolute joy.
It has enabled me to reconnect with nature, reprioritise what is important, and it has made me realise things can change in a day.
There is no asking the obligatory, ‘what have you done at school?’ There is no school. I have exchanged this platitude for, ‘what have you got to tell me today?’ It has brought enriching conversations. They talk about planting seeds, drawing pictures, and doing maths. And then they turn the tables and quiz me: ‘What was my favourite toy when I was six years old?’ (A doll, I still have it to this day, in reasonably good condition). ‘What school did I attend?’ (Raleigh Infants and then Windley Junior School, they no longer exist). ‘Where was I born?’ (City hospital and I lived in Radford until I became an adult). I realise I have spent the past eleven years documenting the Black community, preserving their history through Nottingham Black Archive, and that I never talk about me to them.
And so, I write about me and why I started to write. I write about why I like to write. I write about what the likely aftermath of this could be for the Black community, based upon my experience of the recession that hit in 2008. And I use this time to begin assembling my own personal archive. A letter I received from James Berry in 1997 after I wrote to him sharing my work, craving feedback. Evidence of my time working at ACFF alongside Len Garrison, a flyer of a performance at Nottingham Playhouse supporting Courtney Pine, these things they need to know if they are to carry the writing mantle, which I believe at least one of my six grandchildren will.
Lockdown life has been enriching in that it has given me the much-needed space, in what for me is largely a hectic life. Working as a freelance writer, managing Nottingham Black Archive (which I founded), and undertaking a PhD at Nottingham Trent University, meant there was no space to think or breathe. It has enabled me to reconnect with nature, reprioritise what is important, and it has made me realise things can change in a day.
I have learned what resilience means and how to cultivate it. I’m armed with a pen and a pad and I’m grabbing this moment, tearing at it with my teeth and stockpiling my strength ready for what is to come next.
Walking is the new public transport and I love my walks. Who knew I lived so close to the River Leen, that it sported wonderful wildlife; ducks, and swans, and geese? I have taken to walking with my camera trying to capture my surroundings. I take photographs of my deserted road, lots and lots of photographs of ducks and trees and plants, and even a bee stuck in chewing gum. I have used this time to be productive, pleased that the rattling wheel of to-do lists has slowed its pace. I intend to hold on to what I have learned for as long as I can. And yes, the devastation sits in the background, at times brought to the foreground with the wail of an ambulance siren, that leaves me wondering who now? Who?
While this time may be difficult for some, and I completely understand, it has been a rewarding phase for me. I have adapted to social distancing with ease, I have kept myself busy with the things I deem important. Although I do miss sitting in a café after I have composed a poem and reading it against the backdrop of people engrossed in conversation and the clinking of cutlery as they devour their lunches.
For now, I am busy thinking about the Nottingham City Arts commission to write a poem for Nottingham and engrossed in my research on the Black literary heritage here in Nottingham. When this bubble disappears and we begin the aftermath, which if similar to the bank crashing in 2008 will mean lean times ahead, I am prepared to adapt again. I know what a recession feels like. I have lived it before. I have learned what resilience means and how to cultivate it. I’m armed with a pen and a pad and I’m grabbing this moment, tearing at it with my teeth and stockpiling my strength ready for what is to come next.