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The Sheffield culture guide written by in-the-know locals

Désirée Reynolds

Désirée Reynolds is a formidable woman whose smile lights up the room. Brought up in London, Désirée has many books to her name, including the short story Born on Sunday, Silent in the recently published The Book Of Sheffield, and the novel Seduce. As well as a writer, she's also a DJ, a journalist, and a mentor.

Having first met and worked with Désirée in 2018 on an Our Mel anthology funded by The University of Sheffield and been involved with a couple of events that Désirée has chaired, I can tell you she is a true inspiration to many.

I was especially delighted watching her recent ''in conversation'' event with Candice Braithwaite as part of Off The Shelf Festival of Words. It was stunningly beautiful to see two Black women on the stage discussing their work, life, and everything in between – representation, which in the past has been a rarity in Sheffield. The event filled me with the hope that maybe something is changing in the arts and cultural scene.

I spoke to Desiree about her work and the strand she curated for the 2020 edition of Off The Shelf Festival of Words: Black Women Write Now, a celebration of the writing of Black women.

How would you describe your work?
I think that might be a difficult question to answer. I would describe my work as many things. To write. To tell stories that are often missed by a mainstream eye/ear. To think about the lives of my community. To write true stories; I do not believe in authentic or inauthentic ideas but think true stories are as close as we can get to the human experience. Uphold women and other underrepresented communities often through writing. To make space for change and to encourage it in others.

Why Black Women Write Now?
There is a remarkable thing happening right now. Black women's writing is getting unprecedented exposure, and I wanted to celebrate that. People may not know how long its been or how far we've come to get to this point. It would've been unheard of for a Black woman to win the Booker or any other prize. Not that that means automatic progress – we know that these things are cyclical and very often once done never to be repeated, but still. It's not that there are more of us. We were always here, always writing; it's a little shift happening, and I wanted us, as a city, to bear witness to that. The strand aims to show that these things do not have to be London-centred. There are amazing Black women writers in the north and there are readers. It was time. We still do not get the reviews, the exposure, the pay, and prizes of white writers or male writers, but I'm glad we're here.

What inspires you?
Ordinariness. Things that we take for granted. I'm not interested in kings and queens. How do the rest of us cope with this living? How does everything impact us? The women that raised me. My children. Autism is a big part of family life – sometimes an unwelcome visitor that won't go, sometimes an illuminator but always teaching me something.

What do you love about Sheffield?
I love the green. I have a nice garden (by that I mean I love to sit in it, not that I'm a gardener at all, my mum despairs at my plant-killing skills). You're never far away from a park or woods and of course the countryside. I love its working-class roots. That it was a sanctuary city for years, it welcomed refugees and people seeking asylum. I've forgotten the king's name that said Sheffield was a ''damnable place,'' full of rabble-rousers and working-class rebellion. [Editor's note: according to the book Sheffield Troublemakers: Rebels and Radicals in Sheffield History by David Price, it was George III.]

What would you change about the city?
Hmmm. I would plonk it near the sea.

Off the Shelf Festival of Words continues till the end of October 2020, with live and online events. The final event in the Black Women Write Now strand is Kit de Waal In conversation with Désirée on 31 October at 6pm. You can also listen back to a past event from this strand: Loud Black Girls – Yomi Adegoke in conversation with Sharna Jackson, available online until 8 November.

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