I have long treated myself as something of a personal archival project, keeping quite extensive records so that the story of my life is not lost for future generations. Whether anyone will be interested is a moot point. Certainly, as someone who has always been child-free, there won’t be any descendants discovering their great-great-great grandma’s boxes in the attic. And my books may or may not be of interest after my lifetime, because who knows what the future will hold. Perhaps hundreds of years hence, a researcher will one day descend into the dusty basement of a library somewhere, should they still exist, discover my archive and want to bring the long-lost story of me into the light.
As a former arts co-ordinator, I’m very organised, although I hate most admin, if truth be told. When I worked for arts organisations setting up tours, I used to secretly write novels on my computer. That said, I do like filing in the old-fashioned sense of cardboard folders. It’s both practical and archival. I want the record of my life to be physically solid rather than floating around in a nebulous cyber cloud, vulnerable to hacks or electrical outages, or stored on soon-to-be-outdated memory sticks. My archive goes back to childhood in the form of photographs, pen-pal letters and official school documents, which I’ve always treasured. In school reports I was frequently accused of daydreaming, which I think shows signs of a low boredom threshold (as true today as then) and a fertile imagination, surely? I’m also the keeper of my family archive, which I began building when I was writing my verse novel Lara – a fictionalised version of my family history. I was able to access online British naturalisation documents for my German great-great grandfather from the 1860s, and on my first visit to Nigeria nearly 30 years ago I was given some of my long-deceased grandmother’s papers, one of which contains her thumbprint, as she was illiterate.
I also have stacks of correspondence from intense long-distance love affairs that reveal my inner passions of the time. For example, to my American lover in 1997: “Of course I adore you, you are the best thing that’s ever happened to me and I don’t want to be with anyone else, which is why not seeing you very often just is so painful.” Well, that relationship dragged on for another three unsatisfactory years.
I don’t keep a page-a-day diary because I’m more interested in writing creatively than about myself, but I have occasionally filled notebooks with observations about my travels, or had a cathartic rant. 2020’s diary is an A4 Filofax, which has a beautifully textured purple cover. I like to turn its pages and see my handwritten weekly schedule spread out before me. My career archive goes back to the pre-email dark ages of the 1980s, when I ran a theatre company. I recently discovered many boxes of documents from the company in a friend’s attic. I can’t wait to sift through them and disappear into nostalgic reverie one weekend while putting it all in order.
Ever since 1994, when I published my first book, Island of Abraham, a poetry collection, I’ve bought three brightly coloured lever-arch files every January to organise my work for the year ahead. Folder 1 is for all my writing commissions other than my sole-authored book deals (Words). Folder 2 is for public events (Gigs). Folder 3 is for miscellaneous contracts (Projects). I also have separate folders for my publisher, agent and finances, and I use acid-free conservation boxes for press cuttings. There’s nothing so satisfying as punching holes in documents and putting them in their easily findable place. Friends in the arts are sometimes surprised at my level of organisation, which surprises me because it’s only basic admin. They tell me they have paper mountains on their desks or chairs or scattered about the floor like strewn clothes. They can’t find anything and miss appointments. On the other hand, I’m surprised at how anyone can manage a career using digital diaries and online filing systems. A young friend manages his busy career on his smartphone, which astonishes me.
When my filing is up to date, my mind is clear. When it’s not, I feel destabilised. After I won the Booker Prize last October, my life was suddenly plunged into joyful chaos. My email inboxes, which are usually cleared quite quickly, became jammed overnight with hundreds of congratulatory messages that remained unread for weeks, and my filing went out of the window as I was swept up into a whirlwind of publicity and events, and international translation and festival invitations, all of which generated unprecedented levels of admin. Over Christmas, I had time to get my filing in order, which was a relief. Sanity was restored and I was prepared to enter the new year in a state of administrative zen.
These days I do worry about the environment, so I’m currently supporting tree-planting charities, hoping that my lifetime of excessive consumption of pulped and processed trees can begin to be righted.
Eventually, the folders and boxes end up in weather-proof storage containers in the garage, along with the posters, brochures and leaflets, audio and video recordings, drafts of manuscripts and writing commissions. I find it reassuring that this physical record exists as the backstory to my life and career – the making of me. Yes, it is an act of self-curation, but also cultural preservation. As someone who is deeply inspired by black British experiences and history in my books, I know the value of leaving a record for future generations. And as a writer, my archive makes its own small contribution to literary history.
Girl, Woman, Other is now available from Penguin in paperback
This story was originally posted on 27 March 2020.