Marsha Hunt tells how daughter Karis triggered her mission to

encourage black British-born writers -- a crusade that reaches a finale

at the Edinburgh Book Festival this weekend

PEOPLE who read the tabloids may think that the only thing I did in my

life was have an affair with Mick Jagger. Actually I write books, act,

and used to sing, which is how we met. That we have a daughter continues

to intrigue the press. Her name is Karis. She's 24, smart, knows

everything about me and a lot about theatre, which is why the film-maker

Lindsay Anderson said Karis would be the best person to direct me in a

one-woman dramatisation of my novel Joy at last year's Edinburgh


Though Karis was born and raised in London she moved to San Francisco

after graduating from Yale, but we decided that our house in northern

France where I write would be the ideal place to rehearse Joy. Of course

we were putting our very good relationship at risk when we agreed to do

this project together, because we're both headstrong and for a daughter

to direct her mother could cause greater stress than normally exists

between an actress and director. But one of the things which balances

our relationship is that she's English and I'm American. I can depend

upon her to underplay her emotions and resist shouting at all costs.

She attended the same boarding school that Princess Margaret chose for

her children, and despite my ghetto beginnings in Philadelphia and

Jagger's upper-working-class upbringing in Dartford, our daughter has

the markings of an English public school. She harbours her emotions and

appears calm and understated when I have smoke coming out of my ears.

That's why I knew she could direct me.

When she arrived in France to begin our work together, I picked her up

at Charles De Gaulle airport, claiming that I was on the verge of a

nervous breakdown. She knows I exaggerate so maybe she thought it wasn't

quite so dramatic. But I was definitely suffering from a combination of

writer's cramp, cabin fever, and combat fatigue after months of work on

my fourth book, Repossessing Ernestine, which had me at my typewriter 15

hours a day, seven days a week. I was still nowhere near completion and

had to admit that I'd only just begun the adaptation of Joy for our


She was sitting in the passenger seat with her Macintosh laptop by her

feet and took the news calmly. I knew that she had expected me to

already know my lines, so hearing that the adaptation wasn't complete

must have come as a shock. She was making her directorial debut at the

Festival and I was more anxious than she that things would go well.

That laptop at her feet was to play a starring role in the upcoming

weeks, because we worked together on the adaptation and the piece

benefited from her innate editorial skills. Rightfully, she gets half

the credit. I was 39 before I wrote my first book and it was exciting to

think that my daughter was exhibiting a natural writing skill at 23. I

said: ''You're a writer and you've got a keen sense of story line. You

ought to be writing books.''

While she was studying at Yale she had introduced me to the work of

Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston and bought me Toni

Morrison's Beloved. So in turn, while we were working in France, I

wanted to turn her on to some black British novelists. But I couldn't

think of any who like her had been born in Britain or Ireland.

Black novelists like Ben Okri, born in Nigeria, Caryl Phillips, born

in St Kitts, Merle Collins, born in Grenada, may live in Britain and

have been largely influenced by it. But murmurs from their countries of

origin must affect how they view the world. I wanted to introduce my

daughter to a black British or Irish-born writer and couldn't think of


So I gave her some Walter Mosley, saying: ''Walter's black and

American. Don't be put off because President Clinton recommended him . .

.'' But the notion that there was a distinct absence of black

British-born novelists niggled me and I didn't get a chance to air my

complaint until Simon Albury, the director of public relations at

Meridian Television, rang me in France to ask if I would front a

writers' workshop at the Kent Literature Festival which Meridian was

sponsoring on October 1.

Simon has been a friend since we both were presenters at London's

Capital Radio in the early seventies. His wife is part-Ghanaian and

their five-year-old son David, like Karis, is mixed race and born in

London. So I didn't mince my words: ''A writers' workshop seems

premature. What I'd rather do is set up a forum to ask why there aren't

any black British writers, because there doesn't seem to be any, despite

Britain's great literary tradition. I'm not interested in doing a black

writers' workshop, because it may be more pertinent to invite a panel to

answer the question 'Where is the Black Voice of Britain?' ''

With Karis's help, and the miracle of faxes, Simon and I developed the

basis for a four-hour forum whereby I could invite a panel of speakers

from London's book world, writers, editors, and publishers to discuss

the problem and pose solutions.

I told Simon: ''We don't want this to be one of those beef sessions

where we bore an audience to death complaining about race and politics

that seem insoluble and drift into every issue that's grown out of

slavery. So let me choose the panel and I'll try to come up with some

good talkers. But I can't deal with any of it until Karis and I get Joy

on stage in Edinburgh, because I still don't know my lines and we open

there in four weeks.''

The gods were kind and our production of Joy ran for a successful

three weeks in the little Wildman Rooms so brilliantly run by William

Burdett Coutts's team that oversees all the shows in the Assembly Rooms.

Once I'd settled into the routine of performing every day at noon and

fitting in press calls afterwards, I was able to concentrate on setting

up that panel to discuss why there has been an absence of black, British

writers and what could be done to correct it.

It took a lot of phone calls and a lot of explaining, because the

people I talked to, both black and white, didn't understand why I wanted

to differentiate between writers who were born in Liverpool or Glasgow

say, as opposed to Kingston, Jamaica, or Lagos, Nigeria. Everybody is so

blinded by skin colour that they fail to see how much nationality

affects individuals and affects the voice of individuals who write.

Maybe my being an American who has raised a daughter in England makes

me more sensitive to this. I saw that despite my American presence in

our household, Karis is wholly English. Pork sausages and Marmite were

her staples, like hot dogs and hamburgers were mine.

The grey sky over London, wellington boots and cricket, her

comprehension of Shakespeare, her manner and manners are related to her

British birth. She can adopt America but Britain is her home, in the

same way that I can adopt Britain but am essentially American.

Karis didn't come to that forum at the Kent Literature Festival,

because after our stint in Edinburgh, she was eager to get back to San

Francisco. But I was thinking about her and others like her who have an

African ancestor, yet can only identify Britain or Ireland as home.

The panel I invited included Steve Pope, a co-publisher of X-Press,

Britain's most successful black publishing house, and Margaret Busby,

the editor of Daughters of Africa, an anthology of black women writers

from around the world. Tony Fairweather, who runs a marketing company

for black writers called The Write Thing, also joined us and John

Saddler, editorial director of Flamingo, an imprint of HarperCollins,

gave up his free Saturday to come speak. So did Ray Shell,

African-American author of ICED and the actor Hugh Quarshie.

Andrea Levy was the only black British-born novelist that I could find

for the panel. She'd just had her first book published and was nervous

about talking to the 100 or so in the audience which included people

from the media, radio, and TV.

One person I'd asked to come who couldn't make it was Pauline Black,

the singer with the band Selecter, who is also an actress and

broadcaster. I'd especially wanted her to be there because she'd written

her first novel and, despite her marketable profile (Selecter at their

peak in the seventies had a hit with Three Minute Hero), she couldn't

get her manuscript read by any of the major publishers. Pauline's father

was Nigerian, her mother English, but she was adopted by a working-class

couple in Romford.

I couldn't imagine that her novel about five mixed-race students in

Coventry wouldn't make compelling reading. It filled 487 pages and I

brought it to the forum in case there were people in the audience who

had never seen a manuscript. I also talked about her unsuccessful

attempt to find an agent or publisher and couldn't help wondering

whether a blonde, blue-eyed pop star, TV presenter and radio host would

have had the trouble Pauline had had just trying to find somebody to

read her work.

My own first book was an autobiography commissioned by Chatto and

Windus who may have had hopes that I would write a kiss-and-tell

featuring Mick Jagger. But I resisted that and ghost writers, because I

knew my story could have been exploited for the wrong reasons.

Publishers want to make money and the consensus drawn from that forum

I'd set up was that until publishers can see the fiscal advantage of

signing up black British-born writers they won't bother. So I tried to

think of what I could do to encourage writing among a sector which is

grossly under-represented on the bookshelves. A book prize seemed the

answer so I set about to create one after the forum.

It sounds pompous and even a little ridiculous to say that I've

created a literary prize. But I was forced to because some incentive was

needed for black British-born writers. So despite being somewhat

embarrassed about it, I'm also chuffed that The SAGA Prize exists.

With the combined efforts of the Saga Group, Virago Press, Book Trust,

and our three wonderful judges -- Margaret Busby, Lennie Goodings, and

Steve Pope -- a miracle has happened. We not only have The SAGA Prize,

we also have our first SAGA Prize winner -- who will be announced on

Sunday at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

Only 10 months ago, there was no prize and without the early

enthusiasm of Karis Jagger, Simon Albury, Carmen Callil, and Roger de

Haan it would have been impossible for me to have forged ahead with this

project at such speed. But they weren't the only ones who helped and I

can't begin to list everyone, because there have been hundreds of

well-wishers who have given their support in various ways.

The SAGA prizewinner will be announced during the event, The First

Time, at 6.30pm on Sunday in the Post Office Tent, Charlotte Square

Gardens. If you're in Edinburgh, please come along.

[CPYR] Marsha Hunt