Kathryn Tann caught up with Durre Shahwar and Özgür Uyanık, two of the editors of Just So You Know: Essays of Experience, to find out more about how and why the anthology came into existence. Recently published by Parthian Books, Just So You Know is a collection of creative essays from marginalised voices with connections to Wales, each offering insightful perspectives on topics ranging from self-identity to Welsh culture.
How did this project start and what made you want to embark on it?
Durre Shahwar: I was approached by Parthian a couple of years ago with this book idea. At the time, there were a lot of essay anthologies floating around that unpacked topics around marginalisation as this one does, but none from a Welsh angle, or heavily featuring Welsh writers. This was the reason why I jumped on board.
Özgür Uyanık: I was at the Llansteffan Literary Festival at the Old Pound Gallery when I first met Richard Davies of Parthian Books and he mentioned the planned anthology to me. Soon after that, their publishing editor Susie Wildsmith introduced me to my co-editors Durre Shahwar and Hanan Issa. I was excited to work with them and the amount of enthusiasm Parthian showed towards the idea of showcasing under-represented voices in and from Wales made me want to be a part of it.
What was your main goal? What were you setting out to do?
Durre Shahwar: Our main goal was to feature and platform new and exciting Welsh voices that had something important to say on their chosen subject, and for them to have full control over how they would say it stylistically and thematically. For me, it was especially important to include writers that weren’t the same old names but ones that were up and coming.
Özgür Uyanık: I’d very much echo what Durre has said: it was a great opportunity to help readers access new and emerging writers who all had wonderful tales to tell and really embraced the form of the creative essay to do it.
What makes this anthology different from other collections of diverse voices we have seen?
Durre Shahwar: I think it’s quite exciting to have a variety of topics in one book and how the writing styles really reflect that.
Özgür Uyanık: The range and depth of the writing that was collated makes for a truly engrossing journey with few boundaries and this is what makes this anthology so uniquely entertaining and informative.
Was the response to your call-out as you expected? Did any part of the process surprise you?
Durre Shahwar: We had a really good response and the selection process was definitely tricky. Like with most things, it was a learning curve overall but also a very gratifying one.
Özgür Uyanık: I was really encouraged by the response to the call-out but because we had so many distinctive pitches it made the selection process very difficult indeed. The wealth of stories and storytellers out there is truly humbling to me.
What are the challenges you face when making a book like Just So You Know?
Durre Shahwar: From my experience, there are always challenges when embarking on issues to do with representation and (loathe to say the word) ‘diversity’ because there are a lot of differing outside opinions on how something should be done. Someone can always do it better. For me, the best way to counter those views was to remember that the book isn’t about me, but about the writers who are featured in it, who worked hard to submit and write their essays and how important it was to ensure they have full agency over their work.
Özgür Uyanık: As Durre said, “full agency” is a key prerequisite when working on an anthology that deals with so many issues and perspectives. Our backgrounds as editors and our mutual sense of the project as being very much writer-led helped keep the onus on the contributors and we did our best to support and facilitate them towards publication.
Do you think this anthology will be part of a wider push to improve diversity of voices in Welsh writing? Are things changing? Can we be optimistic?
Durre Shahwar: I would hope that this anthology will make people more aware. But as someone who has been heavily involved in the English-language Welsh literary scene for many years now, institutionally, things are moving too slow to say that there’s a real change happening. Established organisations are almost resistant to it at times. I guess I’m most optimistic about change when I see new grassroots presses and initiatives led by underrepresented artists and writers who fill those gaps, bring fresh perspectives and do what others aren’t willing to do. Hopefully, this anthology can be a part of that.
Özgür Uyanık: The publishing industry, especially right now, seems to be heeding the calls for more representation and the message seems to be getting through that readers want wonderful stories and fresh viewpoints to keep them engaged in literature and books. But the industry and the institutions that underpin them need to make sure that complacency doesn’t drift back in and so we all need to keep pushing for new writing and new voices as well as making sure that emerging writers are given the support they need to reach their readership.
What can the publishing industry in Wales do to help further wider representation, understanding and equality?
Durre Shahwar: Listen, listen, and listen. Put all those consultations into real action. Undertake unconscious bias training. Educate and challenge themselves as well as each other. Come from a place of humility. Realise that a lack of representation, equity and equality hurts us all. There’s room enough for everyone.
Özgür Uyanık: There really is room for many more writers across the board and a hunger in the readership for their work. The publishing industry in Wales will only benefit from reaching out to them.
Just So You Know: Essays of Experience is available now from Parthian Books.