KERRY Hudson was born in Aberdeen and grew up in a succession of council estates, B&Bs and caravan parks. Her first novel, Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma won the Scottish First Book of the Year and was shortlisted for eight literary prizes, including the Guardian First Book Award and the Green Carnation Prize. Kerry’s second novel, Thirst, was a bestseller in France and won the prestigious literary prize, Prix Femina Etranger in 2015. It was also shortlisted for the European Strega prize (Italy) and Green Carnation Prize (UK). Lowborn is her latest novel.

June 2018 – Eight months into writing Lowborn: Growing Up, Getting Away and Returning to Britain’s Poorest Towns

The last four weeks have seen me cradling a canned G&T on many, many trains as I shuttled up and down the UK. First, down south, to talk on literary festival panels about working-class writing. Then, north, to Airdrie, where I stood outside the tenement I turned eight in, watching children running around my old primary-school playground in the distance, while a photographer took my picture in the blustery summer wind for the cover of Lowborn. It was a surreal, magical thing and, as I tweeted afterwards, I wished I could have gone back and told that anxious wee girl that one day she’d be outside that damp flat, grown, happy, shooting her third book cover.

At one point, I joked with the art director and photographer that, when I became a published author, I never imagined I’d spend so much time having pictures taken down alleys or being subtly angled towards the end of the street littered with crisp packets and broken glass. I was grateful to them for wanting to tell a story that transcended those usual clichés. Grateful to them, instead, for trying to capture the image of a strong woman in the environment that had made her strong.

Earlier in the month, during the literary festival panels, I sat on stage with other working-class writers (whatever that broad term means) and much of the conversation centred around the ghettoising of our work – the not-inaccurate belief that writers ‘like us’ are expected to write only ‘authentic, gritty realism’.

Ultimately, the consensus of those panels was that, as working-class writers, we have an artistic and moral responsibility to push against being defined simply by our background, rather than the scope of our imagination and the quality of our words.

As the week, and those conversations, progressed, I began to feel uneasy about my own work. For, while I feel strongly that this is a pervasive problem, wasn’t I doing the opposite in writing a book based wholly on my ‘gritty’ upbringing? Wasn’t I writing entirely to ‘type’?

After those events, I found I was interrogating my choices again. In writing Lowborn, a memoir that explores what it feels like to grow up poor, was I simply perpetuating the writing and consumption of a ‘poverty narrative’?

I had thought long and hard before deciding to write Lowborn. I was concerned about the exposure involved, the digging up of feelings long buried, of knowing that, once it was published, people could pay a few pounds and know me as well as my closest friends, maybe even better. I know it’s a particular sort of choice, deciding to write about your own life, and I have since wondered why I decided to do this when, having already written two well-received novels, I could have chosen to write about food, art, womanhood or, well, whatever I wanted.

But writing whatever I want is perhaps exactly the point. It’s that freedom I’ve been given that is at the heart of this matter. As a girl born into poverty, I was told in all the ways, both silent and very loud indeed, that what I had to say was not worth listening to. And if I spoke up, I risked being punished. Now, I’ve a life which allows me not just to write – a huge privilege in itself – but to write and be read by people who generously let me converse with them through the intimate medium of those turning pages.

I have the choice to write something that might invoke insight and empathy, the freedom to say, ‘This was once me. It could happen to you. Or your child. Or your neighbour’.

The more I thought about it, the more I felt that the idea that I should be expected to paint poverty in anything other than truthful colours – both the strength it can give and the bruises it leaves on the adult self – was both patronising and invalidating. To suggest that writing about those hardships is somehow ‘shaming’ to me and those like me implies that somehow poverty is a situation created by individuals, rather than by a structural inequality that keeps poor people struggling and offers a vast inequality of opportunities and power to those born in better circumstance. It insinuates that the blame lies with me or others from the communities I grew up in, rather than with a society that is fundamentally broken.

Of course, there can be hundreds of different tellings and retellings of the same story and certainly I could edit, contract, expand and conflate my own childhood to make it of the ‘poor but happy’ variety. But that isn’t my real story and I have been given the gift of being able to tell the truth. No one would ever tell a middle-class person they should not write about the hardships they’ve endured. My story is mine. It is human and real and my refusal to sugar-coat it shouldn’t be seen as a betrayal of my community. Quite the opposite – it is an expression of agency I’ve earned.

In writing Lowborn I was given the opportunity to reach those who might dismiss people from a world they cannot comprehend. I have the choice to write something that might invoke insight and empathy, to say, ‘This was once me. It could happen to you. Or your child. Or your neighbour.’

I have the ability to write a book that will sit on a library shelf, waiting to be discovered by a girl like I was, searching for books to see her life, her dreams, her very real struggles with the world reflected on the page so she might understand them. When I stop and ask myself why this book, why take my own life and present it as truthfully as I can on the page, I tell myself because of that girl looking for the book on the library shelf, because perhaps someone else might be more decent to that girl if they read that book, too. I tell myself I’m writing for that eight-year-old in that tenement in Airdrie. Because she has earned that freedom and deserves a voice that is louder than the usual poverty clichés.

This is an extract from Smashing It: Working Class Artists on Life, Art and Making It Happen, edited by Sabrina Mahfouz, which is out on Saqi Books on October 3.