The Polari Prize: Interviews with Nominated Authors, Kevin Maxwell and Golnoosh Nour
By Sarah Ernestine and Alfie Kimmins
Since its creation in 2007, Polari has grown from a small event at The Green Carnation gay bar in SoHo to a well-recognised and respected literary body which hosts events in London and across the UK on tours funded by Arts Council England. Polari also hosts two annual literary awards: The Polari First Book Prize, established in 2011 for debut LGBTQ+ books and The Polari Prize, established in 2019 for books written by a non-debut author with the winner of the prize receiving winnings of £2,000. The Polari Prize remains the UK’s first and only award for LGBTQ+ writing, featuring brilliant books across varied genres.
The Polari Book Prize 2021 shortlist is made up of: Dragman by Stephen Appleby, The Air Year by Caroline Bird, The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle by Neil Blackmore, What Girls Do in the Dark by Rosie Garland, The Ministry of Guidance by Golnoosh Nour and No Modernism Without Lesbians by Diana Souhami.
The Polari First Book Prize 2021 shortlist is made up of: Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stewart, Charred by Andreena Leeanne, Forced Out by Kevin Maxwell, Rainbow Milk by Paul Mendez, A Dutiful Boy by Mohsin Zaidi and Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski.
Interview with Kevin Maxwell
Liverpool-born Kevin Maxwell is a former police detective who now is both an author and a social justice activist. In his debut book, Forced Out published by Granta in 2020, Maxwell shares his story of the prejudice he encountered during his time in the police force, both for his race and his sexuality.
In Forced Out, you tell the story of your eleven years in the police force, where you constantly encountered racism, homophobia, and prejudice. Was there a specific moment that influenced your decision to share your story?
I was a boy who dreamed from the age of five of joining the police. After university, I secured
my dream. But my eleven years of service in two of Britain's biggest forces, Greater Manchester Police and London's Metropolitan Police destroyed that dream because of who and what I am. I fell ill after homophobic and racist abuse and I realised, enough is enough. I should never have been subjected to such hate and wrongdoing because of my sexuality and race and yet I was, documented by the force itself and found at court. [...] This is the police force we're talking about, who is meant to uphold fundamental human rights and yet, breached mine on too many occasions and I was one of them. I find it baffling to this day.
What has been the most difficult moment in your debut novel journey?
For me, the most difficult part of writing my memoir was reliving the pain and trauma the police caused me, which I still bear the scars of today. Going over events of the past and documenting them in a book was traumatic but also therapeutic, helping me to heal by ridding me of some of the immense suffering at the hands of the force. Writing a book about the police and calling them out was never going to be easy, especially with race, sexuality and mental health the main themes, but I ploughed on. [...] I ensured the research, writing and editing process was as thorough as could be. The book contains just under 600 citations and references backing up with facts my position, that the police remain systemically discriminatory.
Did you discover anything surprising about yourself, or the police force during the writing process?
I realised that I am my late beloved mother's son, resilient to the core. My mum was an immensely strong woman, loving and caring, raising eleven mixed-race children in inner-city Liverpool. I didn't just lose my former career after eleven years, but my marriage and home too. I didn't think I had it in me to write such a hard-hitting book but I did, with a lot of perseverance.
Not surprisingly, I realised the police never apologise. They are unable to accept responsibility and change. Despite everything that happened to me, the force has never said sorry for the pain and hurt caused. What message does this send to other gay and Black people, and wider society?
Since the release of Forced Out last May, has there been any response from fellow police officers and former colleagues?
Since the publication of Forced Out, I've received much correspondence from readers about
the book, overwhelmingly positive, and from officers still serving and former. What's not surprising is that the problems of homophobia, racism and sexism persist, and until the police get their house in order nothing is going to change.
How would you define success for your book?
When I wrote Forced Out, I never had any plans, or delusions of grandeur of how well it
might do, or not. For me, my job was to put down on paper, my truth, my experiences of being a gay Black detective in Britain's police without fear, or favour. If just one person bought, read and connected with the story, my job was done. [...] I have been fortunate that it has resonated with so many and read in book clubs around the country[...] And recently, for my first book, I received an MBE from the Queen for services to diversity through literature. To be shortlisted for a Polari Prize has simply been the cherry on the cake.
Interview with Golnoosh Nour
Born in 1988, Golnoosh was born and spent much of her life in Tehran, completing her BA in English Literature at Shahid Beeshti University. She moved to the UK to obtain her MA in Creative Writing and has spent much of her career teaching at various universities across the country. Her book The Ministry of Guidance is a collection of short stories published by Muswell Press and explores all areas of identity including religion, sexuality, and love. Golnoosh previously published a poetry collection entitled Sorrows of the Sun in 2017.
Have you faced any setbacks or resistance in the publishing industry because of your identity, or the content of your book?
Initially my agent and I struggled to find a publisher for The Ministry of Guidance and Other Stories. All the major presses rejected it. I did feel there was a kind of resistance, perhaps not necessarily because of my identity or even my foreign name, [...] but certainly because of the queer content of the book. Had the book been themed around the dilemmas of an Iranian heterosexual couple migrating to the West [...] I’m almost certain a major press would’ve gone for it. The blatant queerness of the content alienates some people and makes the book niche and difficult to market. Although I should probably add that quite a few major presses were complimentary about the book and its content, they had an issue with the medium of the short story.
The Ministry of Guidance explores the search for one’s identity through the intersection of religion and sexuality. Do you think exploring how different aspects of identity work together is something which is missing from LGBTQ+ literature?
Well, intersectionality is a fairly new term and concept for the publishing industry and non-academic readers. But when you think about it, it makes so much sense. It is true that there aren’t many intersectional LGBTQ+ books that are getting recognition, but you could say this about literature produced by pretty much any other demographic. For instance, is women’s literature any more intersectional than LGBTQ+ lit? [...] When speaking about representation, we also need to be cautious about not pigeonholing artworks and make them about nothing but identity. The beauty, and/or [...] the dilemma, of many identities is that they can be fluid [...]. Human emotions can still be captured and conveyed in literature regardless of identity. I am a bisexual woman of colour, but what does that really mean? [...] And although I do explore the intersections of my own gender, race, and sexuality in my writing, never ever do I aim to speak for everyone [in those groups].
I think you have to be very simplistic or solipsistic to assume this is even possible. And I have sometimes found solace in literature written by white heterosexuals. Just like I have heterosexual white readers too, who are engaging with my writing, there is something beyond the definitions of identity that makes them connect with my pieces [...]. I think while it’s ideal to aim for a representation as diverse as possible, we need to bear in mind that art and literature can do so much more than just identity representation. Some representations aren’t just about identity, there could be a representation of a certain temperament, a certain desire, or imagination. And this is one of the beauties and possibilities of literature: it is limitless if you allow it to be. It is brimming with possibilities and dreams and emotions, and just like queerness, it can be fluid [...].
Given your position as a university lecturer, you’re working first-hand with the future leaders of the publishing industry. Do you believe that the new generation of publishing professionals will create a better landscape for LGBTQ+ authors?
Definitely. One of the reasons I love teaching young people is because they’re much more open-minded about some of the concepts that even my generation (a millennial) struggles with. So many definitions and limitations are fast becoming obsolete, thanks to these young people. For instance, I don’t see much respect amongst my students for gender norms or gender roles, I don’t often come across misogyny, homophobia, biphobia, or transphobia. These attitudes are becoming obsolete. So many young people are now identifying as non-binary and queer simply because they don’t want to have to conform to older definitions, which they find limiting. I’m constantly learning from my students, and I’m so happy that in this day and age, at least in this country, it’s easier for people to be who they want to be. We will see an exciting surge in LGBTQ+ writers and literature.
How important was it to you to work with a publisher such as Muswell Press on this project who are renowned for giving voices to both new and previously forgotten queer stories?
Working with Muswell Press, with Kate and Sarah Beal, their fantastic queer literature editor Matthew Bates, and their amazing publicist Fiona Brownlee on The Ministry of Guidance and Queer Life, Queer Love: An Anthology of Contemporary Queer Writing has been so beautiful, emotional, and empowering. I remember in our very first meeting in 2019, Sarah Beal simply said, “We’re in love with your book.” And that was such a reassuring and life-affirming moment. [...] Matthew, Kate, and Sarah believed in The Ministry when not so many other people did within the publishing industry. And their belief made them produce a beautiful book as well. The whole Muswell team has been an absolute pleasure to work with. In retrospect, I can’t imagine giving The Ministry to any other presses, [...] that might’ve treated the book like a commodity, a capitalist prop, rather than a sensitive entity that has a life of its own [...].
The 2021 Polari Prize judging panel was composed of former 2020 winners Amrou Al-Kadhi and Kate Davies, as well as authors Angela Chadwick, Rachel Holmes and VG Lee, literary critic Suzi Feay, poet Keith Jarrett, and Chris Gribble, CEO of the National Centre for Writing. This year’s annual awards event was held on Saturday, October 30 at the Southbank Centre where the 2021 Polari Prize was awarded to No Modernism Without Lesbians by Diana Souhami, and the First Book Prize was awarded to A Dutiful Boy by Mohsin Zaidi. Find the Polari Prize on Twitter at @PolariPrize.