29 Jun Exclusive Interview: Suzette and Suzanne from Still Breathing
Still Breathing: 100 Black Voices on Racism – 100 Ways to Change the Narrative is a new book out from 24 June 2021, curated by actresses Suzette Llewelyn and Suzanne Packer. From actors to politicians, this is a collection of personal perspectives about racism in Britain. Contributors include singer Beverly Knight, artistic director of the Young Vic Kwame Kwei-Armah, Lord Paul Boateng, broadcaster Trevor Phillips, journalist Pat Younge and KOL Social publishing editor Marcia Degia (see image below). Sales proceeds from the book will also be donated to the Ashdon Jazz Academy mentoring charity.
The new third issue of Voice4Change England’s magazine, situated with the Summer Vol.8 ‘Freedom’ issue of the KOL Social, features interviews with some of the media figures included in their seminal book to assess the progress that the past year’s diversity drives have made. The magazine is available to order online, and you can pick up a print copy in selected London newsagents, retail outlets and WHSmith Travel.
To celebrate the release of the book and its V4CE magazine feature, Katrina Hinrichsen caught Suzette and Suzanne for a chat in between acting rehearsals to discuss their exciting and powerful publication.
So how did Still Breathing come about? How was it conceived?
Suzette: I was in a theatre company called the BiBi Crew that started in the 90s, we’re still working together on stuff after all these years. We spent the first part of lockdown working on a sitcom idea that we had. So [Suzanne and I] tune in and speak to each other quite regularly, and that’s where the conversation came up. We were talking about our experiences and our feelings since the murder of George Floyd. We were just expressing how we were feeling, and confessing that we had this feeling of pain. My response to it is actually in the book, Suzanne and I sat and we agreed that we really want to do something with this. We decided that we wanted to make it into a book because we realised that we weren’t the only ones feeling this. Speaking to each other, we realised that each of us were responding in different ways. We wanted to do something, speak to other people, see how they responded to it. So that’s how it came about.
Suzanne: As Suzette said, we were a group of women who have been friends for many years, and we’re always checking in with each other, whether it’s working on a project or generally to see how we all are. We were all made very painfully aware of George Floyd’s murder, it was the big talking point. So we just started to share stories about how racism had impacted us personally and the book eventually came out of that. We now have very different memories of how we came up with the idea, but I remember saying we should write these down. Because from our point of view, when you hold things in that are so painful, it’s very damaging. At the beginning I imagined it being more about us just being able to have an expression – an outward expression of that suffering, of being victims of racism and all that goes with it. And the idea then obviously was well, what would happen if we invited other people? That’s pretty much it, it became very solidly in the form of a book.
We were so naïve at the time. We just thought oh, we can self-publish, it can’t be that hard. [Thankfully] it’s like the universe wanted [to support] an idea that is so strong, and has a volition behind it that is so pure. The universe just handed us this gift of Suzette knowing Rose who is at Harper Collins. This is what is so bizarre, the fact that we weren’t even asking Harper Collins to actually publish, we were just asking them “can you help us find out how to publish.” And luckily she just saw our vision and that’s it, before we knew it we were being published by Harper Collins. [We started the project] not long after George Floyd was murdered, which was on May 25th, so it might not even be one year to the publishing date. Luckily because Harper Collins was so strongly behind us, we could move like an engine. Even they said it is not usual for a book to get from almost conception to publishing within a year. And obviously in our ignorance we couldn’t refer back to anything or compare anything. We just thought, OK, it takes the time it takes.
You are known for your acting, but was writing something you’d always been interested in as well?
Suzette: Well, I’ve written as a part of the BiBi Crew, writing sketches for our shows, and I sort of dabbled in writing years ago. I was in a group called The Rhythm Writers a long time ago. We were writers supporting each other, supporting other writers of colour. And so, yeah, writing is something that I’ve always been interested in. But I’d never written this kind of thing before. They’ve mostly been sketches or as I said, we were writing the sitcom together. So this is really a different foray, writing in this kind, editing, putting this together. But it’s something I’d like to do more of.
Along this journey, was there anything you found particularly surprising or challenging when creating the book?
Suzanne: There was a lot that was eye-opening. It’s only when you start a project, you think “this is the reason I’m doing it.” The reason originally was very much to express our own pain, and we found that, as the BiBi Crew, we were all storytellers, and it was a way of speaking our lives. But it was a bit of an eye-opener just how many people felt the same need. Suddenly there was a camaraderie amongst us – you know there’s some people in the book that I haven’t even personally met, but the fact that we all have this one common need to express our stories [bonded us]. It was so surprising how many people, once we asked if they would be open to contributing to the book, already had stories for us by the return emails.
The other side of it is something that I never realised, and I’ll start straight away with the BiBi Crew. We’ve known each other for nearly 30 years as women, and I didn’t know half of the stories. And that was very sobering: we’ve shared our lives so much over 30 years, but we never shared the stories of the impact of racism. I don’t even know what the significance of it is, but more and more I understand why most of the time, as people of colour, when these racist incidents happen, we swallow them. Or we just feel that there’s not a space to talk about them, or we just pack them away and then we move on. And I find that quite an interesting concept, that there’s certain things that we do not share. The fact that people were so keen to share a lot of their experiences, that was something I wasn’t ready for. And I think from that came a real sense of allyship. I know that’s a buzzword at the moment, but yeah, we’ve got people. We’ve got lords, we’ve got dames in this book. We’ve got people who are really on the front line, the essential workers. And I’ve never felt that I have as much in common with them as I do now, having done this book.
Do you describe any personal experiences or struggles with issues relating to racism in the acting industry?
Suzanne: The one I talk about in the book is more about how my expectations were so set on. Always, even from drama school, I had the idea that because I was a person of colour I wouldn’t get the lead roles. The conditioning was that only white people get the lead or the really exciting bits. I’m going to get the nurses – the essential workers now as we’ve realised, but they weren’t seen that way when I first started in the industry – and I think that internalising that sat on my ambition.
It’s a bit like that whole thing about “you’ve got to see it to believe you could be it.” And I didn’t see it. It takes a very special person to go “I’m not going to care that what the world at present is, this is the world I am prepared to create.” And I was never one of those. As I’ve got older, I decided that that’s part of the reason why we as the BiBi Crew exist – why we exist well into our fifties: because we’re prepared now to shake the status quo. There might have been jobs that I didn’t get because of my colour, but who is going to admit that? But I do know that I wouldn’t have been thought of for certain jobs because of my colour. I remember once going up for Les Mis when it started, and I was told that it was historically inaccurate.
Suzette: [There were things I experienced], just in terms of getting parts or being considered for parts, if they’re not specifically labelled as “the Black woman”. There are lots of things that could be done, you can do something called blind casting – just casting the person you think is going to be the best for the job at this time. But yeah, there have been times like that where you’ve had to push against [the grain]. There’s more stuff coming out now where you see there are people of colour in casts. I mean, even in terms of the adverts – every advert’s got somebody in it who’s of colour now. Ok maybe not every advert, but it seems that there are many more now than there ever used to be. So those things are slightly changing, but there still seems to be a dearth of people behind the scenes. There are people in film who I know, Black filmmakers, film operators, camera operators, makeup people, lighting people, but they aren’t always getting the opportunities.
What do you think of new initiatives being started by organisations such as Channel 4 to boost representation?
Suzette: Yeah there are people there, but I mean, every now and again you hear things like “we’re doing an initiative” – just employ people! People are there, they’ve been there! So that’s the thing sometimes, not getting cast for a long time. I was going up for something, David Heyman was the director, and he wanted to get more people of colour in. I mean, it was just about just casting somebody, rather than saying “oh, you wait until somebody says they’re looking for a Black person to play”. Sometimes people can be lazy in terms of people looking for parts for somebody Black. Like if they want to have a middle-aged Black woman, then, shouldn’t it be a church woman or something? There’s a stereotype that seems to perpetuate that has to be broken, definitely.
Have you felt that series like Bridgerton have been good for helping to create a more colour-blind casting?
Suzanne: Yeah I do, I think it’s definitely the road where we need to be, which is that people are considered for all roles and we’re not vetted out because of our colour. So yes, all of those productions are making a massive change. But we’ve also been fed this horrible lie. Black people weren’t in those situations five hundred years ago, we know that for a fact. If you read anything of fantastic David Olusoga’s work, we were very embedded in European culture and didn’t just exist on a plantation somewhere in the Caribbean. And this is where I think Bridgerton makes a difference, because it will make people go “actually, were there Black people? And were there Black people of status?” and get them to do their homework, and they’ll look at cultures that are precolonial, and hopefully this is the gateway to more of that education. And I suppose that is what we’re hoping our book will be as well, because there are white people who have no idea of living racism because we Black people don’t talk about it. We barely talk about it to each other. We just get on with it, and the fact is I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the white people that read this book are shocked at the minutia of racism – that insidious way that it creeps into every aspect of our lives, but that we’re just getting on with it instead of protesting. We’ve got a couple of nurses in the book who were literally helping people to be healthy and were told “don’t touch me because you’re Black.”
I think that a lot of white people get that, and understand it, but it isn’t just what we get imported from America – all those examples of racism that are physically violent. It’s those little ones, like somebody feeling like they have the right to touch your hair because it’s an Afro texture, or for them to make a racist joke, but because you’re a friend they then tell you that it’s not meant for you or that they don’t mean you because you’re “one of us,” and not understand the impact. Or just throw out the N-word, because somehow they don’t have a connection with that word and its origins.
How did you select the figures involved in the book?
Suzette: Well, first we reached out to people we knew. So that was the BiBi Crew and other actors, but we didn’t want it to be just actors, we needed a little differentiation. I was helped quite a lot by Dr. Wayne Mitchell – he helped enormously with getting scientists on board. He’s a scientist from Imperial College, and they have something there where they run a web series called Imperial As One. Basically, it’s all the people of colour who are scientists, they get together and speak. Then there were a few people that I had heard of but didn’t actually know – we didn’t always know all of the people. Some were people whose work we had seen, so we reached out to them, and some were people on Instagram. We found that we were supported and helped by lots of people. When we found it difficult to get hold of some people, we had others really support us because everybody felt that it was important that people could tell and share their experiences in these testimonies.
Were there any particular testimonies or quotes from the book that stood out to you?
Suzette: There were some really painful ones, but there are just so many. It’s hard, I wouldn’t want to say one in particular. I think the younger ones – it was just that they talked about things I felt I’d gone through in the 70s growing up in this country, and I thought “Oh gosh, why is that still happening?”
Suzanne: It would be unfair to say that there was one or two. I think they all have their own source of pain, and for me, in many ways, as a Black woman, I could identify there were aspects of everybody’s story where – even if I hadn’t had the same details – I could understand the hurt. Even though the details were different, to be made to feel that you weren’t important, to be made to feel that you’re a token, to be made to feel that somehow you deserved to be downgraded and to have a spotlight on you, to dehumanise you. In all of these stories, I know what that feeling is. So in that regard, I couldn’t necessarily pick out one, if that makes sense.
Would you say your book is primarily targeted at any specific groups or is it for everyone?
Suzette: In terms of readership? I think it’s for everyone. I think it’s always good to see how another person walks and step in their shoes, or just to think about them. How somebody else lives. I think it is important for us as human beings, it helps us to make sense of our own lives and empathy. It helps us, so I think it’s an important book for everyone.
Suzanne: I think it has four effects. Primarily, it’s for us. It’s for us as Black people to hear and see our stories out there, and being able to connect with other Black people. From a personal point of view, that was very important for me. It didn’t matter that you could be like, for example, Lord Boateng or Dame Elisabeth Anionwu. It didn’t matter. The colour issue connects us. The other aspect is that people need to understand that this is the living reality of Black people. I would love this book to be in every school library. I would love it in every library, but especially school libraries. So that all children, especially white children, will read this book and educate and build empathy and build a sense of “this isn’t a Black person’s problem, this is your problem”. And ask the question, “what world do you really want to live in?” And if this is a better world, an egalitarian world, then this has to change. It shouldn’t go one day further, these racist incidents.
And the fourth one I think has to go to George Floyd. Because it took him, certainly from my perspective, for me to want to do this. I find that in one respect bittersweet, it’s deeply disturbing that somebody was sacrificed. But then as we know, this is history isn’t it? We always find this happens. Of course you don’t say thank you, but I need to honour him. He has been a massive catalyst. Certainly for this book, and for a lot of people who are now going to be affected by this book. I don’t think we can ever separate the book from George Floyd, because I do not believe that we as the BiBi Crew just sat facing our laptops talking about the impact of racism on our own individual lives, if he hadn’t been killed.
What do you hope to achieve most with this publication?
Suzette: Basically for more people to gain some understanding, some patience, and some love, and also sometimes to learn to look at your own actions, and at what you can do. What changes you can make. Also we wanted the book to benefit people, and use it to benefit a charity. We really were quite keen about that to begin with. Straightaway we wanted it to have an impact. So through this book we are supporting the Ashdon Jazz Academy. It’s a charity primarily for young girls, started by Tricia Muirhead, the mother of a young girl who at the age of 14 hanged herself, because of the pressures of performing in society. It’s named after her daughter, and it’s a charity that’s only been going five years. Basically it’s to help and provide a space for young girls, because I think there’s a lot of pressure on them – on young people, to conform or to be something. So the charity is about looking at those people’s lives and supporting them. We interviewed a couple of charities and they were all doing great work. But this was very direct and was working with a group of young people, who I think really just need that support.
What advice would you give to any individuals or organisations who are looking to change the narrative in an authentic and long lasting way?
Suzanne: I would say to every organisation: invite more Black people, more people of colour into your organisations. The other thing I would say is, be incredibly anti-racist, more than you can ever imagine. Don’t allow a hint of racism to be in your environment. Speak out. And I suppose another thing would be, buy the book, and I am saying that not just because I am very strongly involved. The messages, the stories, they are important and should be read, but also [because] a portion of the sales royalties are going to the incredible Ashdon Jazz Academy charity, in honour of young women, in honour of Ashdon, who took her own life.
Suzette: I would say to just keep doing what you’re doing. I read recently about Gaylene Gould, who is a cultural critic. She has a website called the 4Front Project, where she had this whole list of UK racial justice organisations that are doing some incredible work – Black-based organisations doing lots of different stuff to try and, as you say, change the narrative. And I thought, wow, this is great – sometimes, it’s good even just to see other people doing things. Sometimes we’re not always aware of who is doing what or simply what’s happening – why is this happening? Why isn’t this happening? But people in our own community are doing things, trying to change the narrative. One of the things that you can start doing is just to really look at yourself and what changes you can make.
There’s some great organisations that are trying to encourage that work, things like the Stephen Lawrence Foundation, or the Amos Foundation that’s looking to bridge the gap between young Black people and old and young white people. There are big or organisations like the Runnymede Trust, which is a big race think tank, or 100 Black Men. And then you’ve got things like the Black Curriculum, Black Lives Matter, it’s all these different organisations, arts organisations as well, that basically work to change the narrative, to level up and make the serious changes that we have to make if we really are looking to have an equitable society. It’s really important to talk to others and form connections, because you don’t always agree completely, but your aims can. There might be different ways of getting there but it is important to show all the people that have a commitment to change. It’s really exciting to keep on the work because, you know, change is hard. But we will have to keep pushing for it if we really want it. It’s tough, but things are happening. You see some incredible stuff happening. People creating stuff, making changes in whatever way they can.
- Still Breathing: 100 Black Voices on Racism is out now (Harper Inspire, £20, hardback)
- KOL Social Vol. 8 feat. V4CE’s supplement inside and interviews with figures from Still Breathing is out now and available to order online or pickup from selected London newsagents and WHSmith Travel.
Main image: Suzanne Packer (left) and Suzette Llewellyn