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How Listen up! audiobook clubs created a healing space in a hellish year

When I couldn't find solace in my norms, a digital community unlocked something new

05 Nov 2020

Supported by Audible

For us at Black Girls Book Club (BGBC) dreams of having a hot book babe summer with a bundle of books in our hand luggage were all but written off as the pandemic really mashed up our 2020 visions. Luckily, gal-dem made us an offer we couldn’t refuse. Hosting a session of Listen Up! gal-dem’s audiobook club celebrating the work of new Black authors as part of their collaboration with Jacaranda and Audible. Black stories? Black authors? How could we say no?

Spanning over the course of four months this collaboration sought to create a safe space to listen, discuss and learn from four incredible authors who formed part of Jacaranda’s #TwentyIn2020 – an initiative which saw them publish 20 new books written by Black authors throughout 2020.

Featuring well-regarded hosts Kemi Alemoru, Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, Niellah Arboine – journalists at large and editors at gal-dem alongside us, your favourite book club, Melissa Cummings-Quarry and Natalie A Carter, these sessions were an opportunity to connect with a group of regular readers – or in this case – listeners. We journeyed through the breadth of Black British literature, regaling in rich stories that not only sought to center our Blackness but spoke life into our lived experiences, hopes and dreams. 

The beauty, strength and diversity in Black literature was showcased through the stories picked. Starting with Maame Blue’s Bad Love – a passionate and compelling modern love story that explores the raw  intimacies of a budding romance followed up by Shona von Reinhold’s intriguing Lote, a book about the obscurement of Black figures from history told through the lens of the main character’s fixation on a “forgotten” black Scottish modernist poet in session two.

Session three was led by BGBC – we had the pleasure of hosting Esuantsiwa Jane Goldsmith and her stirring memoir, The Space Between Black and White, that journeys from Britain to Scandinavia, from Italy to Tanzania and Ghana shedding light on Esuantsiwa’s experience as a feminist and political activist as she explores her identity as a Black woman of mixed heritage. Finishing with Under Solomon Skies by Berni Sorga-Millwood based on the true story of two childhood friends living in the biodiversity rich, Solomon Islands and the environmental debt they are owed by the world after decades of overfishing, logging and now rising sea levels due to global warming.

For BGBC and gal-dem this was a first. Whilst we have both explored Black literature through the use of real-life book clubs – having the ability to host an audiobook club was initially quite daunting. Natalie and I thrive in social situations. For us a good book club event involves jewel tone dresses with thigh high splits. There’s an inherent physicality. We want to hug our attendees, laugh and joke with them while we sip prosecco. Holding the book is such a big part of what makes a book club a book club. With lockdown looming events were on pause indefinitely. If we weren’t able to do a ‘proper’ book club we didn’t want to do it at all.

For me, listening to an audiobook was a well needed change in such uncertain times. For someone who reads 2- 3 books a week, for the first time in my life I had a bit of a mental block. With the events going on around the world my usual safe space – snuggling in bed with a good book didn’t seem to offer any comfort. I felt overwhelmed. I couldn’t seem to finish any physical books at all.

A still from our first session

But being able to listen to ‘The Space Between Black and White’ was a welcome change. I felt myself being able to really immerse myself in Esauntiwa’s story. Through accent changes, the ability to hear emotion in the narrator’s voice – audiobooks really give you the ability to completely feel as though you’re listening to a story told by an old friend. It reminded me of sitting at my mother’s feet as she greased my scalp regaling me of stories about her childhood.

Despite my love of a physical book – the smell of the pages. The touch of the spine. There is a particular intimacy that’s formed when listening to a good book. With particular similarities with the West Indian oral tradition with which I grew up – the narrator is almost like a griot. Granting you the opportunity where you and you alone have the privilege of being invited to a private audience with the authors deepest thoughts. 

I truly began to understand why for many of our members e-readers and audio books gave them the opportunity to immerse themselves in literature and enjoy books in a more accessible and practical way – whether it provided a way to listen whilst they did everyday mundane tasks such as cleaning their home or driving. Most important of all audiobooks provide those with learning difficulties a route into reading that is often less travelled. 

“Snuggling in bed with a good book didn’t seem to offer any comfort, I felt overwhelmed. I couldn’t seem to finish any physical books at all”

The beauty of the audiobook club is that it gives all those who are involved the ability to safely connect with friends new and old from the comfort of their own home. I felt myself being more explicitly open and sharing moments with attendees that I may not have necessarily done if we were face to face. 

The pandemic has brought about a lot of loss for many of us – whether it’s family members, work or our well-being but it has forced through a need to adapt and think outside the box.

I had always thought that BGBC was a physical safe space. A place for Black womxn to come together to uplift and amplify the work of Black womxn writers over a cheeky cocktail. But ListenUp! showed me that it’s more than that. Safe spaces are cultivated through curating accessible projects that don’t allow location and accessibility to act as a barrier – opening up reading and the love of literature up to a new audience.