We read to know we are not alone

Karin Lock interviews local author, Jac Shreeves-Lee

Author Jac Shreeves-Lee

Writing from the get go has been part of my soul, my identity and part of my story.” Speaking on the phone to author Jac Shreeves-Lee about her personal journey is an insight into a Tottenham childhood that some will find familiar.

Shreeves-Lee was born in the back bedroom of a large, friendly home where extended family and friends often stayed when going through difficult times. Many hours were spent telling stories and gossiping – this was the “glue that kept people connected.” Stories were such a significant part of her youth that she assembled them into her book Broadwater.

Jac’s Jamaican parents arrived in the UK in 1954, maintaining a strong link to the island through the blue airmail envelopes arriving with news from home. As a child of mixed ethnicity, she understood how words “destroy, break and hurt.” One autobiographical experience in Broadwater powerfully describes how Cupcake is subjected to racial slurs at school. Jac knew there was “power in print, power in words.”

The writer’s parents worked in local factories and education was very important. At the age of six, on receiving a bad school report, her father calmly explained that, as a young black girl, she had to do better. She began to read voraciously, borrowing books from Vincent Road library on West Green Road, and comics from her brother.

Broadwater Farm is a subject close to Jac’s heart. As a child, she played in the fields and swam at the open-air lido before the estate existed. “There has been much heartbreak, loss and grief in the area” and her book attempts to show “a more balanced and accurate view; Tottenham as it is now, not defined by the past.”

Discovering the work of African-American writers at sixteen opened up a new world, which Shreeves-Lee devoured like “eating”. These empowering stories nourished her and reflected: “who I was, how I saw the world and how the world saw me.” Zora Neale Hurston was one poet whose use of language had a profound effect on Jac’s own authorship.

Broadwater shows how multiple narratives can counteract the invisibility or stereotyping that happens with the single story. Creating such a broad spectrum of characters must be challenging, yet Shreeves-Lee found it an enjoyable task. Characters like Miles, the embittered pensioner who experienced rejection as a “barrel child”, gave free rein to her imagination.

To hone her craft, Shreeves-Lee studied creative writing at Birkbeck College and her advice to new writers is to read everything, redraft and never give up. She advocates that writing is good for mental health – be it diaries, poems or letters. Through writing, we cultivate “greater self-understanding, solace, and healing” as “our most important relationship is the relationship we have with ourselves.”

The author’s dream is to see a young person reading her book on the tube. She foregrounds younger voices by making Ricky the character who opens and closes her book. Attending a recent Black Lives Matter march, she felt pride and inspiration walking with so many young people because racism is a “pandemic” that still needs addressing.

A clinical psychologist and a magistrate, Shreeves-Lee’s work incorporates her compassion, empathy and strong sense of justice. By writing through a multicultural and inclusive lens, the author hopes that Broadwater will resonate with people of all backgrounds. “It captures the universality of the human condition − the problems we have in Tottenham are the same everywhere, it doesn’t matter what skin you are in, stories are the bridge between us all.”

Broadwater is undoubtedly part of a changing Tottenham narrative. These days the estate has a “fresh vibrant identity built by a community of spirit, strength and resilience.” Shreeves-Lee’s positivity is infectious and her stories truly champion the area’s multicultural heritage, celebrating it in a way that gives pride to locals and an education to readers.

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