'Odd girl out': an interview with Valerie Mason-John, aka Queenie

Emma Parker
2011 Textual Practice  
A writer and performer, Valerie Mason-John defines herself as a transracially-raised queer dyke of African descent. Born in Cambridge in 1962, she spent most of her childhood living in a Barnardo's orphanage in Essex after being passed into care by her single mother who had recently moved to Britain from Sierra Leone. After a disrupted youth and troubled adolescence, she began writing whilst studying Politics and Philosophy at the University of Leeds in the early 1980s. Motivated by the horror
more » ... f the murders committed by Peter Sutcliffe ('the Yorkshire Ripper'), she became a founding editor of the feminist student magazine Jezebel. A political activist, she was a member of Women Against Violence Against Women and supported the Miners' Strike of 1984-5. Before completing her degree she moved to London to become a journalist, a role that offered an opportunity to pursue her interest in world affairs. She reported on events such as the Broadwater Farm Riot of 1985, the Nicaraguan Civil War, and the struggles against apartheid in South Africa. As an international correspondent, she also covered issues such as Aboriginal Land Rights and the deaths of black people held in custody in Australia. As well as working as a feature writer for the black national paper The Voice, she was a staff reporter for the national lesbian and gay Pink Paper, and co-editor of Feminist Arts News (1992-1997). She has also written for publications such as the Guardian, the Morning Star, and Capital Gay. However, Mason-John gave up journalism on the grounds that 'it was impossible to tell true stories, the media didn't want the truth, and it was these stories I wanted to tell'. 1 Seeking ways to tell stories more truthfully, she studied clowning and took a course at the Desmond Jones School of Mime and Physical Theatre, where she 'reclaimed the art of play...reliving some lost childhood years'. 2 She started writing plays and through drama found liberation: 'I realised I could say anything I wanted in theatre, without it being censored before my audience got to see it'. 3 Since she took up creative writing she has devoted herself to telling untold stories, particularly ones that subvert the myths that uphold the dominant ideologies of race, sexuality, gender, and nation. In a theatrical context, she is best known for her one-woman shows. Sweep It Under the 2 Carpet was first performed in 1997 but revised as Brown Girl in the Ring in 1998 and republished in Deirdre Osborne's Hidden Gems (2008), a collection of six experimental plays by black British writers. 4 Sin Dykes was first performed in 1998 and is published in Brown Girl in the Ring: Plays, Poems and Prose. 5 Winner of the Mind Book of the Year Award, Mason-John's debut novel Borrowed Body (2005), republished as The Banana Kid (2008), bought critical acclaim in the realm of fiction. 6 She has won several other prestigious prizes and awards: she was named one of Britain's Black Gay Icons in 1997, received a Windrush Achievement Award in 2000 for her artistic contribution to the Black and Asian communities, and was granted an honorary doctorate from the University of East London in 2007. 7 Like Black Art and Culture on the Mainland of Europe (1992), a book that Mason-John edited for the Arts Council of England, Brown Girl in the Ring challenges the disavowal of racial mixing and intermingling in European history. Inspired by stories she heard in Australia about photographs of white families that featured holes where the heads of aboriginal relatives had been cut out, and her discovery that Queen Sophia Charlotte, wife of King George III and great, great grandmother of Queen Victoria, had African ancestry, this one-woman show focuses on Regina, a black 'throwback' born to
doi:10.1080/0950236x.2011.586786 fatcat:h6ezthukpzbg3a6xhqszrg7cei