Kit de Waal: ‘Make room for working class writers’

When Kit de Waal was growing up in 1970s Birmingham, no one like her – poor, black and Irish – wrote books. Forty years on, the author asks, what has changed?

Reading at school was agony. A slow, child by child rotation around the class, six pages each. Great Expectations. Vanity Fair. The Mill on the bloody Floss. The boys with their flatline monotones. The girls, careful not to stumble and be humiliated. English was my best subject, so this process was painful. I wanted to race ahead and get to the end of the story. Yet the idea of taking that book home to read later and finish, that never occurred to me. Not when we owned the ultimate big novel: the Bible. We were Jehovah’s Witnesses and three times a week we’d sit in a draughty hall on the backstreets of Sparkbrook in Birmingham, wrapped around a paraffin ...