Trans Women in History- A Women’s History Month Celebration

by Jess

March is Women’s History Month, which celebrates the contribution of women to global history and encourages the sharing of women’s stories, which are often less well known than those of their male counterparts. 

With this in mind, I wanted to honour some transgender women who made a notable impact on their communities and whose stories inspire me to stand up for what I believe in, and to proudly show my true self to the world. 

There are a great many women I could have included here, but these five stories found a special place in my heart and show a wide diversity of experience from Victorian England through to present day New Zealand.  

Stella Boulton and Fanny Park – tried in 1871 

Stella and Fanny were a theatrical double act who shocked Victorian England by attending theatres and social events in women’s clothing. 

Historians usually refer to the duo – christened Thomas and Frederick – as cross-dressing gay men but their story aligns much more with narratives around gender non-conformity than it does with the arrests of homosexual men at that time. Of course, the word ‘transgender’ did not exist in 1870, and it would be inappropriate to make assumptions about their gender identity posthumously. However, we do know that Stella dressed and referred to herself as a girl from early childhood, with Fanny joining her in this when they met as teenagers. Both of them used she/her pronouns amongst friends and family and were gifted dresses from supportive relatives from a young age. 

What fascinates me most about their story is how much their arrest and trial mirrors present day transphobic tropes. Fanny and Stella were arrested at the Strand Theatre in 1870, after Fanny entered a women’s bathroom to fix her dress. The toilet attendant was questioned by police and they were both thrown into jail, where they were subjected to a humiliating and invasive medical examination. Men came forward to testify against them, including one who claimed to have been tricked by their gender and who attempted to publicly expose them in a fit of rage. 

They were tried in court for disturbing the peace and ‘inspiring and inciting persons to commit an unnatural offence’ but were acquitted due to lack of evidence that sodomy had taken place – much helped, no doubt, by their privileged backgrounds and their ability to pay lawyers and medical experts to defend them. 

Cross-dressing was not an offence in Victorian England but their trial nonetheless rocked the boat and was subject to huge amounts of public interest. The duo’s bold and fearless assertion of self strikes me as remarkably progressive for the time, as does one major newspapers use of she/ her pronouns throughout its coverage of the trial; something that modern day newspapers have struggled to do until very recently. 

In an interview with Another Magazine, Neil Bartlett – author of the play ‘Stella,’ which dramatises Stella Boulton’s life says; 

“Every baby comes out of hospital with a whole lot of invisible labels tied to its ankle saying, ‘You’re this gender, you’re this colour, you’re this class et cetera.’ And one of the great gifts that the Stellas of the world give us is saying, ‘Take all these labels off, look at yourself in the mirror and say, who are you?’ And it’s not just about living your own life, it’s about realising that everyone has the right to be themselves and then getting on and doing something about that.” 

Stella and Fanny © Faber and Faber 

Lucy Hicks Anderson 1886 – 1954 

Lucy Hicks Anderson was a socialite, chef and brothel owner who stood up for her rights as a transgender woman long before the word ‘transgender’ even existed. 

From an early age, Lucy insisted that she was a girl and her supportive parents and doctor reaffirmed her in living as one. By the age of 15, she had changed her name and left home, working as a domestic servant until she married her first husband Clarence Hicks in 1920. 

The couple moved to Oxnard, California where Lucy became a well-respected member of the community, winning awards for her cooking and hosting lavish dinner parties for the wealthy families in town. Her marriage to Clarence did not last long, but she was able to raise enough capital on her own to purchase a boarding house, where she ran a brothel and speakeasy.  

She continued to lead a happy and vibrant life until in 1945 – a year after her second marriage to retired solider Reuben Anderson – an STI outbreak in the Navy was traced back to her brothel. As part of the legal investigation, every woman in the brothel, including Lucy, was required to be tested for venereal disease. During his examination, the local doctor discovered that Lucy was trans and publicly outed her. 

Following this, both Anderson and her husband were arrested and tried for perjury and fraud. Lucy became the first trans woman on record to defend herself in court, saying “I defy any doctor in the world to prove that I am not a woman. I have lived, dressed and acted just what I am – a woman.” I am awestruck by the fact that, way back in 1945, Lucy Hicks Anderson was standing up in court hailing ‘trans women are women!’ 

She served some time in jail, with 10 years probation and was forbidden to wear women’s clothes or return to Oxnard upon her release. Lucy and her husband relocated to Los Angeles and lived a quiet life until her death in 1954. Although not a wholly happy ending, Lucy’s story is a bolstering reminder that trans women have always existed and her unwavering determination to live life on her own terms is something I find incredibly inspiring.  

Lucy Hicks Anderson from Oxnard: 1941-2004. Arcadia Publishing, 2005. 

April Ashley 1935  

April Ashely is a model turned activist who was awarded an MBE in 2012 for her services to transgender equality. 

April was born in Liverpool to a poor, working class family and experienced a great deal of bullying, assault and ridicule growing up. Visibly feminine, she says she was made aware of her difference every single day and, by the age of 15, decided to join the navy in attempt to escape her situation and fit in with the gender roles expected of her. 

Her naval career was short lived, however, and, after two suicide attempts, she was dishonourably discharged and sent to Ormskirk mental institution, where she was subjected to electric shock therapy and male hormone injections. 

From the late 1950s, life started to get much better for April. She moved to Paris, worked in a Cabaret, made friends with other trans women and started living as herself. In 1960, she became one of the first British people to receive gender reassignment surgery, which she says made her feel like “the happiest person on the planet.” 

After her surgery, she returned to England where she became a successful fashion model, appearing in Vogue and landing herself a small film role. Heartbreakingly, her career came to an abrupt end in 1961, when she was outed as transgender in the Sunday People and no company would work with her again. 

From this point onwards, April’s life was often headline news, including the story of her divorce from Arthur Corbett in 1970, where the judge ruled that April remained a biological man and therefore the marriage was invalid and annulled. 

In the 1990s, Ashley became an activist for transgender rights, campaigning tirelessly for reforms that would allow trans people to legally change their gender, despite ongoing harassment and ridicule from the press. In 2004, the Gender Recognition Act was finally passed, and April was able to be legally recognised as a woman. She now lives in Fulham with an MBE, a Lifetime Achievement honour from the European Diversity Awards and an absolutely iconic wardrobe.

 April Ashley © Vic Singh, Rex Features. 

Marsha P. Johnson 1945 – 1992 

Marsha P. Johnson was a New York activist, drag artist and sex worker, who played a vital role in key moments of LGBTQ+ liberation, such as the Stonewall Riots in 1969. 

Perhaps one of the most important figures in queer history, it is not entirely clear how Marsha identified – the P. in her name stood for ‘Pay It No Mind’, which is what Marsha would say when asked questions about her gender. However, we do know that her feminine presentation was the cause of both abuse and adoration since her childhood and that her dedication and commitment to fighting for LGBTQ+ rights left a legacy that must never be forgotten. 

After a brief stint in the navy, Marsha moved to New York’s Greenwich Village at the age of 17, where she quickly became a prominent figure in the LGBTQ+ community, serving as a ‘drag mother,’ through which she helped homeless and struggling queer youth, and touring the world as a successful drag queen with Hot Peaches. 

In June 1969, when Marsha was 23 years old, police raided a NYC gay bar called The Stonewall Inn, forcing 200 people out onto the streets and using excessive violence against them. Police raids on gay bars were routine in the 1960s, but this one hit differently, sparking an uprising of LGBTQ+ people, of which Marsha was at the centre. In the days that followed, Johnson and others protested the raid, with the aim of seeing “gay people liberated and free to have equal rights that other people have in America” (Marsha P. Johnson, 1972) 

Following this, Marsha and her friend Sylvia Rivera co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), who held meetings, attended demonstrations and provided housing for homeless LGBTQ+ youth in STAR House, a four bedroom apartment that was funded through a combination of sex work and fundraising dances. 

In a 1998 interview with Leslie Feinberg at Worker’s World, Sylvia Riviera said, “STAR was for the street gay people, the street homeless people and anybody that needed help at that time. Marsha and I had always sneaked people into our hotel rooms. Marsha and I decided to get a building. We were trying to get away from the Mafia’s control at the bars.” 

In July 1992, Marsha’s body was found in the Hudson River and police ruled that she had committed suicide, despite claims from friends the local community that she showed no signs of suicidality. Twenty-five years later, the case was reopened, as shown in the Netflix documentary ‘The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson’, which makes for a fascinating and emotional watch.  

Marsha P. Johnson did not see the liberation she so fervently fought for happen in her lifetime, and was subject to much abuse and exclusion within the LGBTQ+ community, particularly from the white gay men who dominated the Gay Liberation Front. However, she made huge waves in pushing forward gay and trans rights, setting the stage for future generations to fight in her wake and leaving a legacy that has been memorialised in art, monuments, documentaries and in the lives of queer people everywhere. 

Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera by Rudy Grillo, © 1989-90. The Rudy Grillo Collection, The LGBT Community Center National History Archive. 

Georgina Beyer 1957 –  

Georgina Beyer is a New Zealand politician and former actress and sex worker, who became the world’s first openly transgender Member of Parliament in 1999. 

Of Maori descent, she displayed her femininity outwardly from an early age; leading to parental conflict, bullying at school and, in turn, attempts to suppress her true self. She found freedom through amateur dramatics and, at the age of sixteen, left home to pursue a career in acting.  

During this time, she began to rediscover herself as a woman, working as a drag queen and sex worker in Wellington and Australia, before returning to acting in the early 1980s. She had a successful career, starring, most notably, as the title character in the TV film ‘Jewel’s Darl,’ for which she was nominated Best Actress in the New Zealand GOFTA Awards.  

She felt limited by typecasting, however, so moved to work as a radio presenter and, in the 1990s, began to also tip her toe into politics. She started off as the member of a school board and, by 1995, was the world’s first openly transgender Mayor for Carterton. After gaining huge popularity and a re-election with 90% of the vote, she was recruited by the Labour Party and surprised political commentators by winning the typically right-leaning Wairarapa electorate with a 3,033 vote majority and becoming the first openly transgender MP in the world.  

During her eight years in Parliament, she did much to push forward LGBTQ+ equality and sex workers’ rights.  

The Prostitution Reform Act of 2003 decriminalised consensual adult sex work and is the most progressive sex work legislation to date, providing a blueprint for sex workers’ rights campaigners all over the world. In an independent review, it was found that over 90% of New Zealand sex workers believed the PRA gave them better employment, legal and health and safety rights – notably allowing sex workers to testify against their abusers in court. Beyer is credited with influencing wavering MPs to vote for the bill, through her deeply moving parliamentary speech, in which she drew on her experiences as a street-based sex worker and the violence she experienced due to lack of safety. She also campaigned for marriage equality and a bill in her name was drawn to prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity.  

In the 2020 Queen’s Birthday Honours, she was appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for services to LGBTQIA+ rights.  

Whilst her political career is not without fault, she has left a powerful legacy, illustrating, through her incredible journey to parliament, what she calls ‘the art of the possible.’  

Georgina Beyer © Ross Giblin  

Sources and Further Reading 

‘Two Women Walk into A Bathroom: The Fanny and Stella Trials as Trans Narrative’ – Victorian Review, Volume 44. victorianreview.org 

www.anothermag.com/fashion-beauty/8742/celebrating-ernest-stella-boulton-victorian-drag-pioneer 

queerportraits.com 

illustratedwomeninhistory.com 

aprilashley.org 

comicsyouth.co.uk/here-queer-blog 

The Life And Death of Marsha P Johnson – Netflix 

womenatthecenter.nyhistory.org/gay-power-is-trans-history-street-transvestite-action-revolutionaries/ 

marshap.org 

One From The Vaults Podcast Episode 6: The Art of the Possible. soundcloud.com/onefromthevaultspodcast Twitter: @oftvpodcast. Patreon: patreon.com/oftv  

opendemocracy.net/en/beyond-trafficking-and-slavery/decriminalising-sex-work-in-new-zealand-its-history-and-impact/ 

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MAKE MUSIC DAY, JUNE 2019

On Friday June 21st, 2019, Brighton & Hove Libraries took part in our first Make Music Day. This annual event is an international celebration of the role music plays in our communities, and each year sees thousands of performing groups, from beginners to professionals, playing in a variety of public spaces and venues.

Brighton libraries hosted a packed programme of performances throughout the day, with 2 stages at Jubilee library and a performance area at Hove library. We hosted over 30 performances, from beginner to professional and in a wide range of styles, from folk duos to an orchestra, percussion groups and a 50-strong choir. There was also an impressive mix of ages, from a baby and toddler singing club, a primary school ukulele group through to a care-home residents’ music therapy group and Silver Sounds samba band. The day also saw a moving and memorable collaboration between Martlets hospice choir and children from a local primary school.

We also held our monthly Music Club talk on that day; a Brighton Punk panel discussion featuring members of legendary bands The Piranhas, Peter And The Test-Tube Babies and The Fish Brothers, which was also recorded for local radio broadcast.   

Not surprisingly, the event went down a storm and saw large numbers of music lovers clapping, singing and even dancing along to the heart-warming and inspiring performances. It felt really rewarding to be able to transform our libraries into community venues for the day and, as soon as we go the chance, we signed up for 2020. The pandemic put pay to that, but organisers are already setting the wheels in motion for this year’s event, fingers crossed. Once again, Brighton Libraries have signed up to be part of the action, so we will keep you posted!

By Ian  

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Synth Building Workshop for Girls

By Frances

To celebrate International Women’s Day on Sunday 8th March 2019, Library Manager Vicky and I ran a ‘build your own synth’ workshop for girls aged between ten and sixteen in the children’s library at Jubilee. It was one of the most enjoyable days I’ve ever had in a workplace.

However, my initial response to working on this event had been a nagging sense of self-doubt. Thoughts like: “I know nothing about synths or circuit boards; I’m not that tech-savvy; and I’m the wrong person for the job”, ran through my head. I even suggested a male colleague, who, being a musician like Vicky, would “obviously” be much better at this than me!

Then Vicky and I started talking about the gender gap in STEM* subjects at school and university, and how girls still tend to take fewer of these subjects despite studies showing there is little to no difference in boys’ and girls’ average ability. In fact, research shows quite the opposite, that whilst girls tend to think these subjects are not for them, they routinely outperform boys in exams in STEM subjects. It is, then, clearly a lack of belief rather than any shortage of ability that is holding many young women back from studying these subjects at university and/or pursuing careers in STEM occupations. Careers in which women remain woefully underrepresented.

Being a proud feminist, this made me think more deeply about why this is. If we know it isn’t true that boys are inherently better at STEM subjects than girls, why are they still largely perceived as male domains? And why is the abiding stereotype of the synth-building, electronic musician a male tech-savvy geek? Although there has been a more recent acknowledgement of female synthesizer pioneers, and a celebration of women working in the contemporary field of electronic music, production and studio sound engineering stubbornly remain male-dominated fields.

Of course, there is no simple way to explain gender inequality or the construction of a binary understanding of gender, but we do know that the lessons we are taught from an early age run deep. So much so that boys and girls unconsciously internalise gender norms and behave accordingly. To address this conditioning and to attract more young women to study STEM subjects at university, we need to collectively tackle the stereotypes that all genders are exposed to early on. Stereotypes which can and do impact on career aspirations, or lack of them, particularly in STEM fields.

So, with all this in mind it was clear to me that two women running this workshop for girls on International Women’s Day was entirely the point! Not my gendered lack of confidence, or simple lack of ability in the synth-building department. It was about having a go, and in the process attempting to empower young girls to have a go as well.

To prepare for the workshop, Vicky and I practised putting one of the DIY synth kits together so that on the day we could talk the girls through the steps with confidence. This was enjoyable in itself because I quickly realised there was no expert electronic knowledge required, simply an ability to concentrate and focus methodically on the steps one by one. Every step of the build has to be done correctly otherwise the synth won’t work at the end, and once we had correctly assembled ours it was so rewarding and exciting to play with the sounds it generated.

On the day of the workshop itself all twelve places were filled, and we arranged three tables around a screen so that everybody could see the instructions, which included written text and diagrams. Vicky compiled a brilliant experimental electronic playlist by synth-empowered women to quietly play in the background (and further inspire the girls). With tracks by artists like Delia Derbyshire, who arranged the original theme music to the TV series, Dr Who, when she worked at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in the 1960s (although it was years before she got credited). As well as Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, a contemporary composer, performer and producer, who makes electronic music with a very rare synth called a Buchla.

With some hands-on assistance from myself and Vicky, the girls built these sound-generating circuits using breadboards and components like chips, resistors, capacitors, knobs etc., but luckily no soldering was required. Once correctly assembled the synth could be modified to create different kinds of noises, and all participants got to take their synth circuit home with them to further experiment.

Throughout the process it was interesting to notice, without any judgement, the differences between the girls who were genuinely absorbed and able to concentrate on every single step of the build, and those who lost interest pretty quickly and kept asking for help. Not because they couldn’t do it, but more because they didn’t appear to enjoy the level of sustained focus it required. Fiddling around with intricate breadboards certainly isn’t for everybody, including me most of the time. Which highlighted the fact that being good at electronics and engineering has absolutely nothing to do with gender and everything to do with individual personality type and levels of interest.

Not only was this event thoroughly enjoyable it also felt positive in a political sense, and we received some fantastic feedback. This included a Facebook post thanking us with a video of one of the girls further experimenting with her synth, using it to teach her younger sisters about the effect sound waves have on salt. This was a perfect ending to a brilliant day at work in the library.

* (STEM subjects are Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

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ROBOT DAY AT JUBILEE LIBRARY

By Gill

Robot Day – What a fun day that was! 

I think it was our third Stay and Play event for under fives at Jubilee Library.  The idea of Stay and Play is for the Library Staff to set the scene, with a theme and some random bits of equipment, and the children to develop their own play.

We had no particular reason to pick Robots apart from it gave myself, Debs and Nancy an opportunity to make robot masks for us to wear during the session!

We always have a lot of boxes in the library and, as you all know, with a bit of imagination, you can do anything with boxes.  We also had silver paper and flexible duct tubing – which makes excellent robot arms (for those as old as me, think of the robot from Lost in Space!).  There were pens, paper, cardboard tubes, silver duct tape, packing material scattered around.  And, of course, being a library, lots of books about robots.

Debs and I started with our double act of reading some robot stories, getting the children to join in.  Then we led them all over, walking in a stiff legged robot way, of course, to the ‘play’ area.  The children seemed to have an excellent time, staying for a couple of hours, building and drawing robots, and making a glorious mess.  And that is my favourite bit, because the more mess there is, the more I think they have let their imaginations run wild.

Writing this blog has reminded me of what fun we had.  So we have done Robots, a Teddy Bears’ Picnic and Under the Sea.  Hopefully, it will not be too long until we can do another one……….. What theme would you like it to be?  Why don’t you send us your ideas and we can get working on it.

Until then, stay safe and practice your robot dancing – I hear you are getting pretty good at it.

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ROALD DAHL DAY HOVE LIBRARY, SATURDAY 10th SEPTEMBER 2011

by Barnaby Marriott

In April of 2011, I attended an event near New York City which was reuniting the five actors who played the lucky children Golden Ticket winners of the classic 1971 film “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”, and was lucky to spend some time with the British actress Julie Dawn Cole, who famously played the hilariously spoilt Veruca Salt in the film.

She and I hit it off immediately, and I got to read her recently published memoir “I Want It Now!” (which was of course her famous line and unforgettable song from the film), and an idea came to my mind. I told Julie how I worked at Hove Library, and that we have authors and special events that take place, and if she was interested could I contact her agent or manager about the possibility of her coming to Hove Library. She laughed, and was so down to earth, and immediately wrote down her personal e-mail address and mobile number, and said, “No, don’t bother with agents or managers, you can contact me directly! I would love to do something like that.”

The idea stayed in my mind for a few months when I was back home. I did some research, and found out that on 13th September every year, a Roald Dahl Day celebration takes place every year, and I thought, what better time to have Julie Dawn Cole come to Hove Library, and put forward the idea of having it a special Roald Dahl Day themed event, with “Veruca Salt” as the guest of honour

The events and activities throughout the day took place inside Hove Children’s Library, where we had a huge display of the written and audio works of Roald Dahl for everyone to look at and borrow from the library. We had the CD soundtrack from the “Willy Wonka” film playing, which everyone enjoyed. Staff members organised arts & craft activities throughout the morning, where children enjoyed making their own kaleidoscope lollipops, Oompa Loompa models, Veruca Salt face masks, and also peach collages to celebrate the 50thanniversary of Roald Dahl’s classic book “James & The Giant Peach”. 

Approximately 60 people of all ages took their seats in the children’s library at the time Julie Dawn Cole arrived to thunderous applause and cheering, to answer questions and share her memories about the making of the film. Children and adults alike loved this, as Julie told many funny stories and secrets from behind the scenes of “Willy Wonka”. The children particularly enjoyed this, and were very excited. They asked terrific questions (“Was the chocolate river REALLY chocolate?”; “Do you still have your Everlasting Gobstopper?” and “Where did you Veruca Salt go when she fell down the garbage shoot?” were some of the funniest!) It was interesting for the children to learn that while Julie was making this film in Germany back in 1970 when she was 12, about to turn 13, the only communication she had with her family back in England was by letters and post-cards – some of the children were amazed to find out that e-mail, Facebook and mobile phones had not been available 40 years ago! 

Julie also read a couple of chapters from Roald Dahl’s book “Charlie & The Chocolate Factory” to the audience, which was very enjoyable. Many of the children wanted her to read the whole book! We were able to provide library copies of the book for them to borrow and take home with them. We had made sure that we had reserved as many copies of as many of Roald Dahl’s books we had in stock from all of our branch libraries, and they were all issued that afternoon!

Later in the day, Julie signed copies of her book and photos from the film – and she decided that all autographed photos for children would be free, as she was enjoying herself so much and was taking such delight in how happy and excited the children were for her to be there. The adults also had a wonderful time, many of them were children themselves when they had first seen the film and shared with Julie how they felt they had grown up with her themselves. Hove Library staff had wonderful feedback from people who attended, saying how interesting and fun it had been, and that it showed their children about how exciting events at their local library can be, and they looked forward to similar events happening in the future in Brighton & Hove Libraries.

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Taking Part in The Winter Mini Challenge

I am nine years old and every summer I normally sign up to the Summer Reading Challenge at Brighton and Hove libraries. I like the prizes and sticker rewards for the books I read and I love the medal and certificate for reading 6 books.

This year I was excited to hear that there is a Winter Mini Challenge run by The Reading Agency. I signed up on the website with help from my Mum. I chose my avatar. My avatar is called Zoe. You can then add the books that you read to your profile.

The website is fun, you can chat to other children about books and also play games. My favourite game is Mythical Maze

Once I read 3 books I got a special virtual badge, I also collected a medal from Jubilee library.

I would recommend the Mini Reading Challenge as it is really fun and it encourages you to read!

You can sign up here: http://wintermini.org.uk

It runs until Friday 19th Feb 2021

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What the Winter Reading Challenge means to our Library Officers

Some of you might be familiar with the Reading Agency’s Summer Reading Challenge which runs throughout the summer holidays. Every year thousands of children and young adults sign up to the challenge, where you read a minimum of six books and get themed rewards for each one you finish. During a normal year, anyone participating in the challenge can come to the library, get their stickers and have a nice chat about the books they have read, as well as exploring activities and reading recommendations in the Reading Agency’s website. For me, as someone who works at the library, this is one of the highlight of the year. In fact, before I started working here I volunteered at my local library during the challenge. I spent hours talking to children sharing their reading journeys: there was the joy of children who had just finished reading their first book by themselves, children who had raced through a whole favourite series, and children who excitedly told me super detailed facts about subjects they were obsessed with but of which I knew nothing. There was so much excitement amongst children completing their reading adventures and a real eagerness to share their most loved books, proving how important not only reading, but also talking about stories, can be.

Of course this year has been a bit different, and we all missed out on the in person report backs and recommendations. But we have all learnt new ways of sharing stories. Throughout the year libraries have issued e-books, posted online story-times and story club sessions and children have been reviewing their reads and finding new ones via the Reading Agency website.

With the winter break coming up and people being unable to meet up as much as they might have liked there is at least some good news: this could be the year the Summer Reading Challenge’s less well known sibling the Winter Mini Challenge comes into its own! Following the same pattern, the Winter Mini asks you to sign up to reading three books during the holidays (or more if you want) to complete  the challenge and claim your rewards. The theme for this year of everyday heroes is ‘Everyone Is a Hero’ and it is an exciting collaboration between the Reading Agency and the award winning inclusive publisher Knights Of. All you have to do to join is go to wintermini.org.uk , create an account if you have not already got one, and set your reading goal. Once there you can meet all the Knights Of heroes, chat with other readers, keep track of your reading and claim your rewards. When you have finished the challenge you will get a downloadable certificate, and you will be able to collect your real life medal from the library if you wish. There are book recommendations for all age groups on the site. In fact, if you are a parent or carer, reading along with your child is a lot of fun and could be the perfect family activity for this year’s slimmed down Christmas indoors.  

The Winter Mini Challenge runs between Tuesday 1 December 2020 and Friday 15 January 2021.

We might not be able to have in person conversations at the moment, but feel free to share your reads with us via Twitter @BHLibraries or the Brighton and Hove Libraries Facebook page. We are looking forward to hear about what books you have discovered.

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Black History Month

October is Black History Month and after a year which has seen the re-emergence of Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the globe and growing publicity and awareness around historic and current racial injustices, we have an abundance of works by black creators to share with you.

In the wake of the protests there were campaigns to get black authored works to number one in the best seller charts, social media was full of vibrant personal recommendations and there was a real surge towards hearing black voices and rectifying the white bias within the publishing industry. Many different groups and publications have published their own reading lists, highlighting a fertile field of exciting new black voices, as well as the amplification of amazing, established writers who for too long have been marginalised and lacked exposure. One example is Bernadine Evaristo, who gained a whole new audience for numerous and exceptional previous works, after being the first black woman to win the Booker prize in 2019. This year’s Booker prize shortlist is the most diverse in the prize’s history, with four out of six nominees being writers of colour.

https://www.facebook.com/BrightonandHoveCityLibrariesWith the weather turning more autumnal, why not join us in spending Black History Month and beyond exploring and celebrating the growing range of books, eBooks and eAudio books by writers of colour available through our libraries? Below are some reviews of our library staff’s favourites, with further recommendations from our stock by genre to get you started. Of course, there are many more reads available on the catalogue and new stock is being added both to our libraries and to the BorrowBox and RBdigital apps throughout the year (crucially not just during Black History Month!) so keep browsing. If you have any favourite read by a black author you want to shout about please email us at Libraries@brighton-hove.gov.uk with the details of the book, a photo of the book cover(if you can) and a few reasons you love it and we can promote it through our social media channels. You can also find further recommendations from our staff by following us on Twitter and Facebook.

Want to be educated? Challenged? Inspired? Entertained? We have a Black History Month book for that!
There are links to further reading lists and recommendation at the end of the article. Enjoy!

Justine recommends: Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved


This Pulitzer-winning novel is a deeply important witnessing of the history of the unforgotten. It is luminous, furious and shocking, lyrically written by one of the greatest writers in the English language. Morrison uses the ghost story to explore the trauma and dislocation – both physical and mental – of slavery and white supremacy and, ultimately, the curative power of love. It’s a milestone in the story of black people in America and a tale that will haunt you. As it should.

Jessica recommends: Jay Bernard’s ‘Surge’

This poetry collection centres around two fires: the New Cross fire of 1981, which killed 13 young black people at a party, and the Grenfell fire of 2017 where almost 80 people died. Bernard uses the archives from what came to be known as the ‘New Cross massacre’ to immortalise the voices and document the fallout of what was commonly believed to be the silencing of a racist attack. Part history, part activism, part memorial device, they show us how the past echoes loudly in the present. Surge is passionate, powerful, angry and utterly heart-breaking and these poems have been haunting my dreams for months. Bernard is an urgent new voice of brilliance.

Benjamin Zephaniah’s ‘The Lives and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah’

If you love Benjamin Zephaniah’s poetry, and even if you don’t, his autobiography is a brilliant read, with the author’s life being closely entwined with the social history of Britain, and the various struggles of the day. A child of Windrush generation parents, he paints a compelling picture of everything from a working-class childhood in Birmingham, to his experiences of prison, police brutality, racism, activism and, eventually, success as one of the nation’s most well known poet. Being used to experiencing Zephaniah as a performance poet, I listened to the audio book, which he reads himself. He is also releasing a book in the ‘voices’ series in November called Windrush Child, bringing the narrative of the Windrush generation to children’s literature.

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s ‘Friday Black’

This hard-hitting debut short-story collection is an often uncomfortable read –but in a good way. With stories tackling racism, violence and the soul sucking effects of unbridled capitalism, Adjei-Brenyah presents a futuristic, yet unsettlingly recognisable dystopia, interspersed with glimpses of hope. A few of the stories particularly stand out: the opening story The Finkelstein 5 is a sharp and bloody satire of the institutional racism routinely experienced by black youths, and the title story Friday Black perfectly portrays a world where whole lives are taken over by extreme consumerism. Friday Black is bleak for sure, but it is also surreal, original, funny and full of humanity.

Writing Our Legacy’s ‘ Hidden Sussex: A New Anthology for Sussex –Fiction, Non-fiction and Poetry from the Black and Ethnic Minority Experience

Writing Our Legacy was established in 2012 with the aim to, in their words, “raise awareness of the contributions of Black and Ethnic Minority (BME) writers, poets, playwrights and authors born, living or connected to Sussex and the South East”. Hidden Sussex is their first publication and it is a wonderfully diverse anthology of BAME writing from all over Sussex. Its 27 pieces range from poetry to memoir, fiction to essays and they all give a unique perspective of the place we all call home. Writing Our Legacy put on frequent events and workshops and their website (https://writingourlegacy.org.uk/latest/ ) is well worth a visit.

Frances recommends:
James Baldwin’s ‘I am not your Negro’

I am not your Negro is the unfinished manuscript Baldwin intended to be a personal recollection of his three friends, the civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr, who were all assassinated within five years of each other. Along with excerpts from his other published works, as well as various television appearances, the text from this book is used to narrate the powerful and critically acclaimed documentary of the same name by Raoul Peck. Although Baldwin died before he completed it, his words create (as ever) a radical, powerful and poetic work on race, as relevant today as it was then.

Bernadine Evaristo’s ‘Girl, Woman, Other

I loved this novel for many reasons, not least because it bends the form of the novel in a really exciting way by giving us not one but twelve very different co-protagonists, who all share an equal footing and whose stories intersect in beautiful and sometimes subtle ways. Dominant racist ideologies have worked to trap and fix Black people and Black experience under a monolithic definition of race, so by providing such a rich multiplicity of Black British women, Evaristo’s novel celebrates some of the possibilities of who and what Black women can be, thereby pushing against stereotyping and invisibility. I particularly fell in love with Amma and her Black lesbian feminist politics.

David Olusoga’s ‘Black and British: A Forgotten History

This book is a vital and timely re-examination of the long relationship between the British Isles and the people of Africa, reaching as far back as Roman Britain. These histories and narratives have long been silenced, and it is this lack of information and education that play a huge part in racism in the UK today. Black British history is woven into the cultural and economic histories of the nation, and it is imperative that we are taught about British colonial history and our leading role in the oppression of Black and Brown people. However, it is equally important to learn that colonialism is not the only story: Black British people were pioneers, inventors, soldiers, queens, and icons and this book works towards uncovering some of this rich history. It was accompanied by a brilliant four-part documentary with the same name, presented by the author.

Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart

Things Fall Apart is a ground-breaking masterpiece that reshaped both African and world literature. Published in 1958, Things Fall Apart is the first in a landmark trilogy of works chronicling the fate of one West African community, continued in Arrow of God and No Longer at Ease. These were/are seminal because they look at the brutality of colonisation from the viewpoint of the colonised, featuring a highly complex tragic hero, Okonkwo. It was the first novel to explore the break-up of tribal life from an African perspective, and it is not an exaggeration to say that it spurred a revolution in modern African literature. Paving the way for a new generation of African writers, like the brilliant Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, to write about Africa and what it is to be African.

Further reading recommendations:

Fiction
Colson Whitehead – The Underground Railroad
Bernadine Evaristo – Mr Loverman
Derek Owusu – That Reminds Me
Fran Ross – Oreo
Ralph Ellison – Invisible Man
Andrea Levy – Small Island
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Americanah
Ta-Nehisi Coates – The Water Dancer
Tsitsi Dangarembga – The Mournable Body
Maaza Mengiste – The Shadow King
Kiley Reid – Such a Fun Age
Brandon Taylor – Real Life

Autobiography/biography
Elizabeth Jane Burnett – The Grassling
Lemn Sissay – My Name is Why
Audre Lorde Zami – A New Spelling of my Name
Roxane Gay – Hunger: A Memoir of (my) Body
Maya Angelou – I know why the Caged Bird Sings
Martin Luther King – The Autobiography of Martin Luther King

Poetry
Lemn Sissay – Listener
Langston Hughes – The Collected Works of Langston Hughes
Jackie Kay – Bantam
Linton Kwesi Johnson – Selected Poems
Grace Nichols – I have Crossed an Ocean: Selected Poems
Danez Smith – Homie
Raymond Antrobus – The Perseverance

Crime
Attica Locke – Bluebird, Bluebird
Oyinkan Braithwaite – My Sister, the Serial Killer
Dorothy Koomson – Tell me Your Secret
Rachel Edwards – Darling
Chester Himes – Cotton Comes to Harlem
Walter Mosley – Trouble is what I do

Non-fiction
Reni Eddo-Lodge – Why I’m no Longer Talking to White People About Race
Ibram X. Kendi – How To Be An Antiracist
Ijeoma Oluo – So You Want to Talk About Race
Akala Native -s Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire
Paul Gilroy – There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation
Layla F. Saad – Me and White Supremacy
Afua Hirsch – Brit(ish)
Robin Diangelo – White Fragility
Nikesh Shukla (Ed) – The Good Immigrant: 21 Writers Explore What It Means To Be Black, Asian, And Minority Ethnic In Britain Today
Michael Fuller – Kill the Black One First
Sam Selvon – The Lonely Londoners
Colin Grant – Homecoming: Voices of the Windrush Generation
Wesley Lowery – They Can’t Kill Us All
Johnny Pitts – Afropean: Notes from Black Europe
Glory Edim – Well-read Black Girl

Sci-fi/fantasy
Tade Thompson – Wormwood Trilogy
Octavia B Butler – Kindered
Nnedi Okora – For Who Fears Death
N. K. Jemisin – The Inheritance Trilogy
Samuel R Delany – Dhalgren
Marlon James – Black Leopard, Red Wolf (Dark Star Trilogy book 1)

Teen
Alexandra Sheppard – Oh My Gods
Tomi Adeyemi – Children of Blood and Bone and Children of Virtue and Vengeance
Malorie Blackman – Noughts and Crosses (series)
Patrice Lawrence – Orangeboy
Angie Thomas – The Hate you Give and On the Come Up
Dean Atta – The Black Flamingo
Benjamin Zephaniah- Refugee Boy
Nic Stone – Dear Martin
Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam – Punching the Air

Children’s
Atinuke – Anna Hibiscus series and Too Small Tola
Malorie Blackman – Grandpa Bert and the Ghost Snatchers
Sharna Jackson – High-Rise Mystery
Jason Reynolds and Selom Sunu – Ghost
Joseph Coelho – Poems Aloud

Children’s non-fiction
Jamia Wilson and Andrea Pippins – Young, Gifted and Black
Vashi Harrison – Bold Women in Black History
Vashi Harrison – Exceptional Men in Black History
Helaine Becker, Dow Phumiruk – Counting on Katherine
The series Little People, Big Dreams has got numerous publications covering black people from history, from Harriet Tubman to Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks to Ella Fitzgerald.

Picture books
Nathan Bryon and Dapo Adeola – Look up! and Clean Up!
Mo Farah – Ready, Steady, Mo!
Ken Wilson – Max Astro Girl
Nadia Shireen – Billy and the Beast
Hannah Lee – My Hair
Atinuke Baby – Goes to Market

Further reading and inspiration
Many, many outlets have created their own reading list of black authors for you to explore. Here are just a few examples to get you started.

Children’s reading lists:
Writing Our Legacy’s list of anti-racist children’s books

The Reading Agency’s ’65 brilliant books for children and young people by black authors and illustrators

Book Trust’s list of historical stories from Black History

Adult reading lists:
The Jhalak prize –Book of the Year by a Writer of Colour. A browse through their website and long lists from previous years will guide you towards many gems and the new ‘Books we Love’ section will be updated with recommendations

The Black History Month web-site has a book section where you can find reviews and recommendations

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Libraries in lockdown: What does community engagement look like?

Library staff are no strangers to a challenge. When it was announced in mid-March that library buildings would close for the foreseeable future, our brilliant colleague Gill sprang into action immediately and live streamed her scheduled Storytime via Facebook before leaving the building.

Our stock team set to work straight away, growing our virtual library of eBooks and eAudio. Social media emblazoned with Borrowbox signposting and online joining instructions, we began to field enquiries (from home) to make sure that the reading and learning opportunities we offer were still as accessible as possible. A new Facebook group was even created for ‘Book Chat’ where customers and staff could start conversations about reading habits and lockdown booklists, as well as sharing their recommended titles to celebrate World Book Night – the day that the UK lockdown was announced.

But what about those customers we might struggle to connect with during this time? 

Our community engagement team’s mission is always to ensure that our library services are accessible to those who need us the most – their work extends to the housebound, those living with disability, asylum seekers and refugees, families at a disadvantage, young people who are NEET or at risk of being so, the homeless community, and many others. The team work in partnership with volunteers and dozens of local community groups, charities and artists, to democratise creative and cultural opportunities.

So how has this work been able to continue during a major health crisis?

Since Gill’s first foray into the virtual storytelling realm, we’ve delivered an online Storytime every single day at 10.15am, some live, some pre-recorded, from the homes of dedicated library staff. Some of these sessions were themed and embellished to mark celebrations close to our hearts, like Empathy Day, World Refugee Day, Mental Health Awareness Week, Bookstart Week (Pyjamarama) and Trans Pride. In order to keep the magic of books alive for our youngest library members we’ve introduced our pets, donned our best pyjamas, stuck googly eyes to fruit and, at the risk of being upstaged, roped in our own children to help! A regular Storytime at Jubilee library would attract on average around 10-15 parent carers and their pre-schoolers. Online Storytime, Baby Boogie, Story Club and family craft sessions currently average in excess of 1500 views per session.

But of course numbers only ever tell half a story. We’ve also been working with partners like AMAZE, Digital Brighton & Hove, and council colleagues to make sure that this content and these opportunities reach those who may be further marginalised throughout lockdown.

In June we were proud to announce our new Library of Sanctuary status, and we found new ways to celebrate Refugee Week virtually for the first time. Staff and customers share their most cherished books by, and for, refugees. Excitingly, with support from New Writing South and The Book Nook, we launched our first flash fiction competition for all ages. We had a whopping 120 entries, in five different languages, from writers as young as six years old! Our guest judges included children’s author Onjali Q Raúf and we announced the winners earlier this month.

Our next mission is to deliver the annual Summer Reading Challenge online throughout July and August. The challenge (delivered in partnership between libraries and The Reading Agency) is aimed at addressing the reading ‘gap’ that many primary aged children experience over the summer holidays. Due to the differences in children’s lockdown experiences, this gap will be more pronounced than ever this year. The well-documented disadvantage gap between children from different backgrounds will undoubtedly have widened also. Therefore, libraries’ promotion of reading for pleasure and initiatives like the Summer Reading Challenge is more vital than ever.

And it’s not just the kids that will have all the fun! We’ll be launching a Summer Reading Challenge for adults – ‘Brighton & Hove’s Best Summer Reads’ – where customers are encouraged to read and recommend their favourite titles for the season.

We are also working closely with an army of volunteers to get redesign and restart our Home Delivery Service and have taken on 30 new clients, taking us to a total of 110 clients, many of whom are already receiving reading materials from us in a new, rigorously safe way. We’ll keep promoting this service to people who can’t use our e-services and are unable to obtain books otherwise, owing to health conditions, mobility issues, or caring responsibilities.

Behind the scenes, plans have been drawn for the reopening of physical library spaces, with the safety of both library staff and customers being paramount. Meanwhile we’ll continue to deliver against our mission and stand firm in our belief that libraries will always have the power to change lives.

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Experiences of an American library volunteer

One of our brilliant library volunteers, Peter, took time out during this very difficult time to write the following piece sharing his own personal experience of volunteering for Brighton and Hove library services.  Read his touching and eloquent story below:

I am a 58 year old American living in Brighton. I came here because I fell in love with a lovely Brightonian while visiting in London last spring. While here, I am doing an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Brighton.

To my surprise ‘Uni’, as you call it here, only met once a week during the fall semester so I found myself with lots of independent time to do my studies where I wished.

I have always loved libraries and I soon discovered Jubilee. What a treasure you have here! I love the open atrium. It happened that the day I first visited was some sort of special day and there were greeters there who helped me get an account. Since I live near the small, often unstaffed Westdene library branch, I was encouraged to get a Libraries Extra. In addition I learned about the electronic tools Borrow Box and RBDigital which are especially useful now. The cafe area is very nice and the communal seating has led to some nice conversations. On one of my first visits, although everyone around me was ensconced in their reading, I noticed a sign on the table that encouraged chatting. I gestured to my neighbors on either side of me and said “It says here we are supposed to talk”. The man to my left said, in a friendly way, ‘We’re English. We don’t talk.” I replied, “Well you can probably hear that I’m an American.” and, before we knew it, the three of us were having an active conversation. The man to my left had to leave after a bit as his lunch hour was over. I learned that my other neighbor was a semi-retired mathematician and we had a nice chat about his work and my nephew who also studied mathematics. I was also able to share with him an interesting article that had recently appeared in the excellent Quanta Magazine, which frequently covers mathematics.

In my second semester I am taking a Communities of Practice module which encourages writers to engage with their community. I had already considered volunteering at the library and this gave me the incentive to actually make it happen.

The process of becoming a volunteer was fairly straightforward and all of my dealing with Brighton & Hove library staff was efficient, professional, and friendly. My situation was a bit more complicated than most, due to the requirements of my university for a volunteer placement but the person at Jubilee was easy to work with and did the extra work to sign me up without complaint.

After communicating via email, I met for an interview at Jubilee. I am a retired software developer and very comfortable with technology so becoming a Library Connect volunteer to assist people with computers or phones seemed a natural fit.

After my reference was checked and I was accepted as a volunteer, I got the opportunity to ‘shadow’ one of the experienced Library Connect volunteers as he helped several people. I felt a bit as a novitiate being instructed by an older priest as he showed tremendous empathy to the people who had come to us for help. In some cases people needed quite straightforward help but in other cases their needs were connected to bigger events in their lives such as the need to apply for European Settled Status or to access their bank account after the death of a life partner. It became clear to me that the role had subtleties I had not appreciated and required sensitivity and discretion.

Finally, it came time for me to me begin my own first shift. I appreciated the trust I was given with access to the non-public parts of the library and a lanyard showing my status as an official volunteer. I looked in the appointment book and was happy to see that all three 45 minute sessions were booked. Less good, I was informed that the first person had cancelled. I was sitting at the Library Connect desk when, to my surprise and pleasure, a woman who had been working nearby asked if I could help. It turns out that the library is also used by the National Careers Service. The person who spoke to me was a Careers Advisor and her customer needed assistance uploading her resume to the job placement company Indeed. The customer had been out of work for more than 10 years after quitting to take care of her aged parents and another relative with cancer. She now wished to return to part-time work. To reacclimate herself to the workforce and get some recent experience she had been working in a charity shop. I was pleased to be able to assist her.

My next customer did not show up. Please don’t do this! It wastes volunteers time and prevents the slot from being used by someone else who needs assistance.

My third customer turned out to be very interesting and helpful to my own studies. She is an accomplished artist, playwright, and novelist with over a dozen published novels. Over the last few years she has been adapting some of her stage plays and novels to screenplays. I happen to be taking a screenwriting course at the moment so found working with her particular relevant. After our fruitful session we connected personally and I have now helped her edit three different plays. In the process I am learning from an accomplished writer. With the library now closed and my volunteering finished for now, it has been good to still be able to help someone who I met in the position.

Before the current pandemic shut things down I had the opportunity for two more sessions. In session number two, I was able to help an older woman set up a Gmail account, write an email to her son, and put names to telephone numbers in WhatsApp so she could better communicate with her extended family. Another client is a legally blind person who I was able to help by taking dictation of a letter to an incarcerated relative. I felt privileged to help this person with such a difficult circumstance.

In my third and final session before the shutdown I helped the widow of a former Cambridge Don research the life of a famous violinist from the reign of King George IV and helped another Brightonion create a Gmail account and use it. This last customer is an active volunteer in the community so I felt that he was getting a bit of good karma in return for his service.

All in all, my experience was very positive. It gave me a chance to meet people I wouldn’t ordinarily have had a chance to. I got a small taste of the wide variety of tasks that people are using these powerful, but sometimes confusing machines, for. Most importantly, it gave me a chance to give back a little to this community which is my new home and which has been welcoming to me. I look forward to when normal life resumes and I get to meet and help more of you.

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