Craft Episode 4 Transcript: Johny Pitts
By Wasafiri Editor on April 28, 2022 in podcast
Welcome to Craft.
Each month we bring you one international writer, talking about one of their works, for about thirty minutes. This month, Johny Pitts explores the origins of his nonfiction travelogue, Afropean: Notes from Black Europe.
Johny Pitts is a multiple-award-winning writer, photographer, and broadcast journalist, originally from Sheffield, England. His first book, Afropean (2020), combines travel writing, photography, history, and slices of memoir into a nonfiction work that seeks to sketch the many lives lived by Black people in contemporary Europe. In this fascinating interview, he tells the story of how he moved from wandering the streets and record stores of his hometown, lost, to becoming the head of continent-wide network of Black writers committed to capturing their experiences in Europe – in all their beauty and challenge.
So, I’m going to read a section of the book that I don’t read very often actually, because it’s really towards the end of the book. And it’s where I’ve kind of left behind some of the cold places like Moscow and Stockholm, and I’m feeling quite good about the journey. I feel like all the people I’ve met have given me a bit of confidence. And I’ve learned a lot along my journey, and it’s coming to an end. But having said all that, I’m exhausted, and I’m running out of money. And I think this passage sort of lets you understand where I was at towards the end of the journey. It’s sort of behind-the-scenes in a kind of weird way.
It was carnival time across Portugal, which meant a series of epic parties over the best part of a month that only ended when people felt like it. But Carnival was a celebration of the passing of the seasons. The chill of northern and eastern Europe is already a distant memory, the spring equinox heralding the end of my trip, the train out of Lisbon left at six in the morning just before the weather took a turn for the worse. The April showers arrived early, and it rained ceaselessly for the rest of my trip. Watching the train cruise past cork trees hanging in the spring mist, I dozed off. And other than changing for a connection in Faro I pretty much slept until Seville, where I arrived at seven in the evening. From the comfort of my own home months earlier with my feet up probably sitting by a burning radiator, I decided that the last two days of my Interrail pass would be sufficient to make it from Lisbon to Gibraltar, where I saw myself concluding my trip heroically at Europa Point from which, on a clear day, it was possible to stare at the shores of Africa from the shores of Europe.
In order to save time and money, I decided my future self wouldn’t need anywhere to sleep in Seville. That I’d be fine hanging out in the streets until the first coach left for Algeciras the next morning. But of course, I hadn’t factored in any variables: the rain and fog which had hung over the passing landscapes in Portugal; a hangover from the night before I boarded my train straight from a final blowout, huge Afrobeat party, or the seedy civilians of the night. I wandered around the empty streets of this pretty Andalusian city, which looked as though it was floating among low flying clouds and, beautiful as it was at that time of night, Seville was also surreal and unsettling. An aggressive incoherent, drunken, old Spanish man picked a fight with me. A middle-aged curb crawler mistook me for a male prostitute and tried to pick me up, and at about three in the morning I saw the diffused red glow of some handbrake lights. In the distance, a gleaming white Porsche 911 was idling at a deserted intersection. The driver had fallen into a stupor at the wheel, slumped forward from his leather sports seat. His window down and all the doors unlocked.
You’re reading all this in the form of a neat little package, an edited book, probably with a fairly assured looking author photograph of me on the back cover. But there, and then in the early hours of the morning in San Sebastian station, and after five months of self-funded budget travel, my hair was starting to dread. My shoes were falling to bits. I began talking to myself and some of my late-night travel notes were becoming increasingly oblique. As a solo traveler in search of Black Europe, I’d started to get used to strange places at strange times, occupied by strange people, because my search often led me to Black people who were forced to work unsociable hours, or living out on the periphery, or forced into travelling on the cheap coach at stupid o’clock in the morning. Regular men and women shunted by prejudice into the reality of poverty, educated immigrants sharing work shifts and geographies with alcoholics, addicts, and criminals. It had been reported that there are abnormally high mental health issues among the Black communities in Europe. But my travels had largely been sustained by a very steadfast sanity, which so many Black men and women had managed to maintain despite often living under such bizarre conditions.
There’s an official genesis of this book and then an unofficial one. They’re both true but the official one is kind of easy to understand and it’s that I was sensing tensions among the people that I knew. I grew up in a very multicultural area on the outskirts of Sheffield, Firth Park, and I was just noticing real disjunction among communities that previously held me together. And that was to do with the fallout of the financial crisis in 2008. You know, when people have less money, there’s always generally a kind of a rise in tension and people are looking for scapegoats and guinea pigs, but really, probably it goes back even earlier. I think the real fracture was probably around September the 11th, and seeing the war on terrorism and the vilification of the Muslim community. I grew up in a large Yemeni community. And I noticed that that really changed everything. That’s the kind of official beginning of this book. That’s why I wanted to try and piece everything back together and think about what went wrong, and how, as a Black community, we might be able to sustain ourselves in this very politically charged climate.
The unofficial story is more personal. I remember, in the early 2000s, I just had my first job and had been sacked, and I was wandering the streets of Sheffield, really trying to make sense of my days, kind of going nowhere. I quit college, and had been kicked out of my job. I left school feeling very unconfident. There’s a real kind of anti-intellectual environment in the area of Sheffield I grew up in, in many ways. And somebody spotted me walking on the road and said – a complete stranger – ‘Hey, do remember the train to Frankfurt?’ This stranger mistook me for somebody that they thought they saw on a train to Frankfurt, and that, to me, was incredibly beguiling. This notion that there was somebody who looked like me – and I had a big afro back then – who was on a train heading to Frankfurt, was so evocative to me.
I decided, probably subconsciously at the beginning, but more consciously later on, that I wanted to put myself on that train to Frankfurt, and I want to see who that person might have been — not literally but figuratively. Who are the members of the Black community living in a place like Frankfurt? I didn’t pass through Frankfurt on my actual trip, but that really sparked something imaginative for me — that encounter. I started to think, well, how would I piece together or make sense of the cultures that have sustained me growing up as somebody with brown skin in this corner of what was then very much still Europe? You know, geographically it still is but maybe culturally not so much after Brexit. And I came across this word Afropean in the realms of music.
So going back to those days, when I was kind of wandering Sheffield without a job going nowhere. I remember spending midweek afternoons in this really strange kind of atmosphere where everybody else seemed to be going somewhere. You know, kids are going to school, people are going to work, students are studying, and I wasn’t. I was mooching around but I’d have like a little unofficial itinerary around all the music stores. I caught the last couple of years where independent music stores still existed — and I’d go around all these different music stores and I’d just buy random CDs that kind of looked interesting with any spare money that I had. And usually, I’d head straight to the bargain bin where for a a pound you could get an album. And it was during this period that I discovered some amazing, what I would describe as Afropean musicians.
One of the first artists was a Swedish Jamaican singer-songwriter called Steven Simmons, who is just incredible. He worked with people like Raphael Saadiq and created a really haunting album that sounds very much like Soul music but has European elements and the instruments that he uses… it’s almost his like sort of ambient music from Europe mixed with neo-Soul. I love that album. And I discovered that and, I thought, oh, this looks interesting. And there was also the work of Zap Mama Belgian Congolese vocal quartet at that time, but really just based around Marie Daulne, the lead singer. And, and, and Marie Daulne actually coined this term Afropean. Her first album was Adventures in Afropea. So I discovered this word Afropean in the realms of kind of music and fashion. And it was just very attractive to me, especially after having this encounter, where I was thinking of what it means to be Black in Europe on this train to Frankfurt.
Suddenly, I had a word that might be used to bring this all together, to bring these experiences together. That was Afropean. The problem with Afropean, which I started to realise, was that while it was very utopian in a way, while it was something to try and aim for, it didn’t chime exactly with my own experience, which is a very working class experience. So I wanted to sort of see what Afropean might mean outside the realms of music and fashion. What it might mean when it didn’t involve, you know, publicists and art direction. And that’s when I started to really think about my own journey and what that might look like, and where I might go to try and work out what Afropean means for everyday Black people.
So fast forward a couple of years and I’ve kind of pieced together an idea. And it’d be a train journey through Europe’s Black communities. And, when I nailed it down to this, I’m like, This is great, right? I’m going to get like a 300 grand advance, I’m going to pitch it around, and I’m going to be fighting people off with this amazing idea. And nobody was interested, nobody, not in any capacity. I remember getting in touch with one publisher who said, Oh, it’s already been done, and mentioned Caryl Phillips’ European tribe, which was, like, published around the year I was born. And it’s as if the Black community can only have one, one book about a certain thing. And our books are very different. Anyway. So yeah, nobody was interested. And so I thought, right, I’ll set up a Facebook page, and just do it casually. And, okay, it’s not gonna get published, it’s not going to be this huge, huge, best-selling book, but that’s not what it should be about anyway; it should be about the community, the community should come first. And so I thought, well, let me build a community online.
And it was amazing how quickly through this word Afropean, which almost… I don’t want to… you’ve got to be careful, don’t you about like, neoliberal algorithms, but in some ways, Afropean does work as a kind of neat hashtag. It was like art, it was whole and unhyphenated and it was like a portal for people, people could latch onto it. And immediately encoded in the word is… it’s kind of all of the things I was trying to suggest, as messy as all those things were. Afropean was kind of simple and people could come to it and then complicate it. And that’s what happened very quickly. We ended up with about 10,000 followers on Facebook. And then through this kind of community that was thriving, we got some funding to create a website. And there were other people who were very interested in it. Yomi Bazuaye, who is an amazing coder, and is our tech guy now. And then originally, Nat Illumine. Nina Camara is somebody else who joined us later on from the community, but Nat and Yomi.
When I applied for funding, it meant that I could set up a proper website (you know, nobody was getting paid for anything). But it meant that together we could work on something and create an official website and try and reach out to members of the community to write pieces, essays that maybe nowhere else was commissioning. And that’s certainly the case for me: the only place that would – it was embarrassing service – but the only place that would publish my writing was the place I set up myself, which was Afropean.com. And that’s where it all began, really is. And then when I started to have some kind of… I guess I could show metrics in all that book business stuff. And that’s when I could then approach a publisher and that’s when people started to become interested in it. But it was quite nice because it just meant that this book really did spring out of a community rather than me going off by myself. And I think initially, I had in mind maybe a kind of coffee table type book of success stories: I’d take photographs – the shallow depth of field, almost like Humans in New York-style – and just tell these kinds of quite positive stories of the Black experience in Europe – again, which would completely simplify my own experience, which was not glamorous at all, really.
This book was like jumping off a cliff in the darkness and hoping for a soft landing – there was no real plan. And I just thought: I need to get out of here, and I need to do this book. It’s now or never, and it really was. Looking back, thank God I did it, because I wouldn’t have been able to do it now. This is a two-young-daughters-now, and I wouldn’t have been able to do that kind of trip now. So it was a trip very much of its time.
And I set out, and basically, I thought, I’ll be on the road until I run out of money. I had a loose idea of when I was going to come back. As mentioned in the short piece that I read to you, there were like these points where I thought, Okay, well, I’ll end at Europa point where you can look out from Europe and see the coast of Africa, that seemed like an interesting place to finish the journey. And then really, I was just… I wanted to, I suppose, go to places where I knew there was this legacy of colonialism. You’ve got to go to Portugal, if you’re going to deal with the Black culture and community in Europe; you have to go to France, and then there were some, I suppose, places that I went to just out of curiosity, like Moscow. I didn’t necessarily have to go to Moscow to deal with the Black community. But then having said that, I’d read and I knew through my dad, that actually Russia, or the USSR, was at one point considered a bit of a safe haven for the Black community.
And then, of course, you have the way that the USSR, Soviet Union, armed a lot of African independence movements fighting against Western imperialism. So that was an interesting place historically, even though there wasn’t as much of a Black community. And then I have always just loved Stockholm. So I just wanted to go there. And because of the singer-songwriter, Stephen Simmons, I just really, really wanted to see what kind of a place with, again, with a history of socialism looked like, and to see what was happening there. So, that was a little bit frivolous, I suppose. But in the end I felt they were the most interesting chapters, in many ways, because of what you’re dealing with when you don’t plan. (I don’t want to suggest that it’s good not to plan.)
But having said that, I think what you get with Afropean… and the way that is put together is a kind of dalliance with the counter intuitive. So instead of me saying, having this, this, this theoretical construct in place… I think Fredric Jameson talks about this notion of the winner, the winner loses, when you have this tight theoretical construct in place that can be proved wrong, or it’s just too perfect. You don’t let any light in and I think what happened with Afropean is all these cracks, all these things that I didn’t know all these counter-intuitive moments. I mean, some of the encounters that I had, I spoke to members of the Black community, who were kind of anti-Black in some ways, and I would never have sought those people out, but they had interesting stories, too. And so I think that’s what you get with Afropean. It’s a bit of a bricolage of experiences.
It was actually devastating because I wrote this book longhand. I came back with these five really tatty notebooks full of scribbles and ideas. I mean, to call it a first draft is to give it too much praise. It was not a first draft, it was just really rough travel notes. And I keep them because they’re kind of amazing objects: they’ve got like, coffee stains from that time I had a kind of Arabic coffee on the outskirts of Amsterdam, or… so they’re interesting objects, but I’d be mortified if anyone actually really pawed through them and looked at their contents, because it was really just me trying to work things out as I was on the road. And then when I started to type it all up, I kind of worked so hard in the British Library. I’d be going there as soon as it opened until eight at night, or whenever it closed, I think it was eight at night on Thursdays and Fridays, or something like that. And I was there researching and writing. And then after sort of about three years of doing this, trying to make sense of of my journey, of my travel notes, and trying to place what I was hearing from people in history, I was put the last line down. I was like, done, wow, I finished! The word count was like 500,000 words. No, no, no, I haven’t finished! Oh, who was it, Cicero, who once apologised to a friend and said, You know, I’m sorry, this letter is so long, if I’d have had the time, I’d have written a short one – and that was very much where I was. It was like, I need to spend more time honing it and getting the ideas down.
But really, that began when, on the journey, I met with Caryl Phillips, who wrote The European Tribe, and that was one of the few books that I really did see as a precursor to my work. And it just so happened, I mean, the brilliant writer Colin Grant reviewed Afropean for The Observer, and it was a very positive review. And then, privately, he said, ‘Oh, you know, I cut a few things out, but privately, I just wanted to say, these were a few of my critiques.’ And it was nothing bad. But one of his critiques was almost, it seemed too, like, what it what was the word that he used, it almost seemed too perfect. You know, like, not perfect, but too, there was too much good luck. In fact, it reminds me, I think it was… I forget which writer said this… but there’s a travel writer who said that a lot of travel writing fails because of the monotonous good luck of their authors. And, of course, what the writers are getting at is that people are making it up, or they’re not being honest about what really happened. But with me, this journey happened over a period of six months. And then there was all this other stuff that I was making sense of. And so in some ways it was… even though I tried to keep a kind of languorous pace in a certain way. It really is, I guess, all the highlights of the book.
And one of the things that was incredible: it just so happened that when I was due to be in Belgium, well, two things: one, Zap Mama was doing a performance, and two, Caryl Phillips was doing a talk at the University of Liège in Belgium. So I had this incredible luck. And that happens on my journey. And I think really to get good luck, you have to look for it. So it was only good luck because I was searching for this stuff. And you know, you make your luck as you’re travelling, but it was incredible and meeting Caryl Phillips in Belgium changed everything for me because he’s a writer who doesn’t pull up the ladder behind him, he left the ladder down so that I could climb up a little bit. And he’s been a real mentor to me, and opened so many doors. And as soon as I met him on that same trip, he was there and Linton Kwesi Johnson was there. And I met Sharmilla Beezmohun, who Wasafiri readers will know. And meeting those people, they would say Oh, you should speak to this person, that person and Sharmilla put me in touch with the person who is now my agent, Suresh Ariaratnam, who was just more than my age and I hate calling him my agent because he’s just my lifestyle coach. Terrible description of him as well. But he’s a friend, mentor, he’s done so much for me. I’ll never – as long as he is willing to be my agent – I’ll never ever leave Suresh. But he was interested in my kind of messy notebooks and he saw something in it.
And it was the first time actually meeting Caryl was the first time that I met somebody. Sometimes you speak to writers and they talk about Oh, Mrs. Johnson, I was struggling, but Mrs. Johnson saw something in me or whatever. I never had that. Going through school, there wasn’t any moment where anybody took me to one side and said, you might be a good writer, or you might be creative, or, you know, in fact, I remember once using – I was always interested in words – and I remember once using the word ‘ubiquitous’ in class, and my teacher telling me to stop showing off. It was this constant feeling of, Stop showing off, don’t get clever, don’t think you’re something you’re not – a very kind of parochial atmosphere. And Caryl Phillips was the first person from a kind of older generation – a scholar at Yale University, no less – who saw something in me. And that gave me so much confidence. And then the same with Sharmilla. And suddenly, this kind of… as you can probably guess, it was very ramshackle, I was all over the place. I didn’t know what I was doing, really. And, of course, in the beginning, in a very childish way, I thought, I’m going to get this huge advance, but you know, really that was hiding a deep sense that it wasn’t possible actually, I kind of… you know when you have those dreams that are ridiculous like that, it’s a way of shielding yourself from the reality, I think, but they kind of instilled a bit of confidence in me. And then Suresh helped me hone my ideas down and we submitted to a bunch of publishers and Penguin came back and were interested.
I’m kind of… I’m a bit of an autodidact, I suppose, in many ways. And I mean, this book is so intimately connected with my own life story, it’s the closest. I don’t want to sound dramatic. I’m going to sound like an idiot here, but it was the closest time… it’s the closest I’ve ever come to feeling like I would be willing to die for something, creating this book, crafting this book… I mean, in the Native American tradition they call it a vision quest, and I was about that age when I was writing it, around the age, coming of age, if you’re looking into astrology, when my Saturn returns, and I don’t want to get into all that fluff. But I was at an age where it was like, Okay, it’s time to take things seriously now. And I’d been sort of mooching around and playing around getting involved in music, journalism and stuff, but I’ve never really taking myself seriously.
And suddenly, I don’t know what it was, but I started to really take myself seriously and work really hard. Meeting Caryl Phillips was really interesting. I saw Caryl Phillips took me more seriously than I was taking myself. And so that was huge. And I do think that what you need in life is a group of people who will hold you accountable, to feel like you’re being watched in a certain way. And to think that somebody like Linton Kwesi Johnson might be watching me, the Caryl Phillips is watching me, that raises your game, that raises your game. And so I just worked like a demon, filled in all the gaps of my own knowledge, but then also realised that… and I’m thinking of somebody like Raymond Williams here, reading people like Raymond Williams, to realise that actually, my own experience is valid too, and in those moments where I’m out of work that is part of my writer’s currency, that is important. And that is not something that should just be dismissed. And to look back at my own life and think, well, there is meaningful stuff here as well, was also quite empowering. And so bringing those two things together, as well as my own experience growing up in a working class multicultural area on the outskirts of Sheffield, I’m going to take that seriously.
And then I’m going to try and place, I’m going to try and connect with other people who’ve had a similar experience, and then try and work out some of the energies that have been moving us throughout our lives the external energies, and that’s what I was doing the British Library for like four or five years. My partner and her sister-anthropologist came out at Goldsmiths and they will both say No, like, you basically did an unofficial PhD, you did your schooling, but kind of in this unofficial way. But then what’s also amazing is that through this network I’m getting guided by some great teachers, meeting with people like Paul Gilroy, who was helped me out, people like Steven Small, who is a big scholar of Black Europe, and is out in California at the minute, I think, Berkeley. And so I was engaging with academics who were helping to guide me. But I think finding a mentor, or mentors, has been really important in my life. I think that changed everything, and helped me.
I think this is why people believe in God, I think this is what’s so important. I’m not religious, but I think the role that God plays is also important. I’m not religious, but I think the role that God plays is feeling like somebody’s watching you when actually nobody else is and that kind of can help move you forward when no one’s paying any interest if you believe that somebody’s watching you. It kind of makes you conduct yourself in a certain way and and I think that’s what having mentors did for me.
Craft is brought to you by Wasafiri magazine and Queen Mary University of London, with funding from Arts Council England. Our theme music and sound design is by Josh Winiberg. Our logo is by Alaa Alsaraji. Tom Wilson does our editing. Interviews and the introduction are by me, Malachi McIntosh, and Afsana Nishat does everything else. See you next month.