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Guest Blog: Remembering Oluwale by S.J. Bradley

It had been a long time since I'd been so nervous. Me and Max Farrar from Remember Oluwale were at the Saboteurs in London, palms sweating, heart racing, waiting for them to call out the winner for “Best Anthology”. 

Getting here had been a long road, and I don't just mean the train journey from Leeds to London. In March 2016, Max had approached me to edit a book that responded to David Oluwale's life and death. The anthology had been a voluntary, time-intensive project involving lots of hours on my part, with support from Leeds Big Bookend, Fictions of Every Kind, the Remember Oluwale charity, and Valley Press. 

During the editorial process I had felt huge amounts of pressure to get it right. To do justice to this man's memory, and to make sure that everybody involved in the process met deadlines. Though there were a lot of people involved, there had been one person mainly steering the project – me, and now here I was at the Saboteurs, with Max, hoping that we'd win. 

I must confess that I initially knew little of David's story. To prepare, I read Kester Aspden's “The Hounding of David Oluwale”, a thorough and shocking book, and discovered that David Oluwale was a man who had immigrated to Leeds from Nigeria in the 1960s, who had spent most of his time in the city either homeless, or in a psychiatric ward. He was victimised by members of the police force, and eventually found dead floating in the River Aire. Nobody was ever convicted for his murder. 

Far from trying to create a comprehensive book about David Oluwale, (we are far from the first group to create works of art in his memory), I aimed to put together a book that responded to the themes in David's life, that anybody could delve into even if they weren't familiar with his story. During the Writing Prize, we received over a hundred entries of prose and poetry. All entries were blind-read by a wonderful, very experienced and diverse reading team, who then voted on their favourites, with each “yes”-voted entry getting a second read by me. 

Choosing twenty entries to publish was not easy. Some of the entries referenced David directly, many didn't. A lot of entries were similar to one another in approach or form, and as editor, I wanted to find a balance between those which talked about David directly, and those which used his life story, and the issues, in a more oblique way. 

Two stories that caught my attention early on were Koyejo Adebakin's true life story, 'In the Cold', in which our narrator and his family are evicted and told: “Neither... of... you... has... recourse... to... public... funds”, and Gloria Dawson's 'Promises (for David Oluwale)', which covers poverty, social justice, work, and exclusion, in just under 2,000 beautifully written words: “I sit with them, I am the man with the city's disorder, I am the woman in the crumpled skirt.” Though each covered similar ground, their diversity of approach was enough to make me want to include both. While Adebakin's story felt real, something you might overhear on a bus, Dawson's story showed us a desperate world glimpsed through poetic vignettes. 

The poetry category, similarly, gifted us with a range of material and approach. Alan Griffiths' 'In The Day Room' was a reading team favourite, with its powerful image of a man completing a jigsaw: “the pictures perfect on the lids / a country farm yard, park gardens or dales, / all stone walls, daffodils and clouds, / but the pieces never all the right way up”. This poem, with its resonances of psychiatric-ward boredom, I liked for the simplicity of its approach. 

Another poem which I included was 'He Remains', by Cherie Taylor-Battiste. This was one of the many pieces sent in that talked about David Oluwale directly. It struck me with the immediacy of its voice, as though being spoken right into my ear. “David's last run with head broken heart strong pushed on all our thighs / Carrying The Black Man's burden and tripping on Darwinian ties”. As a poem, it spoke so directly, so distinctly, that I couldn't help but want to put it in the anthology. 

I could talk about each individual piece directly, and what it was about each that I loved: their telling of the lived experience of asylum-seeking, or of social exclusion and prejudice (David Cundalls' 'Signs and Wonders', Helen Forbes' 'The Curse of Naples'); their mention of the particulars of David's story – the geography of Leeds in Ian Harker's 'Aire', the policemen who taunted him in Char March's 'Son-of-the-Mother-Whose-Children-Are-Like-Fish'; the characterful exploration of identity and history by an Efik narrator in Anietie Isong's 'The Storyteller' – but I suspect that there isn't room here. I will say though, that one thing that struck me over and over again during the editing process was how current “David's issues” still are. Those facts of institutional racism, of systematic social exclusion, don't and have never gone away. The diversity of entries to this competition was testament to that fact. 

Our longlist was a brilliantly varied collection: Max Farrar and Sai Murray of Remember Oluwale both had chance to read it before it went to press, and helped with their input and comments. We were keen to include works that had formerly been published and created about David Oluwale, and were lucky to be able to include work by Caryl Phillips, Linton Kwesi Johnson, and Rommi Smith and the Baggage Handlers, among others.

Getting it all to press on time wasn't easy: negotiating with 20 poets and writers during the editorial process, as well as juggling the judging process for the competition, and bringing in all the previously-published material and getting everything into the manuscript in time for it to be typeset, is probably the editors' version of riding an unbraked bike downhill towards a clifftop. 

When the book came out though, I realised it had all been worthwhile. Gathering those previously published works together with the new pieces, in a book with David's picture on the front, was a fitting way to remember David Oluwale. Ian Duhig read at the Leeds launch; we gave prizes out to our competition winners. Max sourced a CD player and some boxed wine for the party. Authors came from as far away as London to celebrate the anthology launch.  

We knew that the book was something to be proud of, and that it was a good artistic response to David's story. The only thing we didn't know was, would anybody else agree? 

So it was with train tickets in hand, and a set of pre-booked Eventbrite tickets, we found ourselves at the Saboteur Awards, hoping to win. Max was primed with a bottle of champagne from the bar, perhaps he knew something I didn't, and when the Saboteur judges read out the name, “Remembering Oluwale,” a cheer went up so rowdy I felt as though I was back in Leeds again, watching football in a pub. We'd won! 

It was a validating end to an immersive and important project, something I was very proud to have been able to be a part of. I went home with a head full of happy memories, and a banging headache from the afterparty. 

The Best Anthology trophy now sits in pride of place on my writing desk. 

Buy the book here.

SJ Bradley (@bradleybooks) is a writer from Leeds, UK. Her short fiction has been published in the US and UK. She is director of the Northern Short Story Festival and her second novel, Guest, will be out this summer from Dead Ink Books.