A new writing competition has been launched in memory of David Oluwale whose life ended in tragic circmstances in Leeds in 1969. Yvette Huddleston reports.
Sometimes stories – no matter how tragic – just have to be told, especially those which bring to wider attention the experiences of people whose voices are rarely heard.
That is at the heart of a new writing competition launched this month by Leeds Big Bookend literature festival in partnership with Leeds-based literary social group Fictions of Every Kind and the charity Remember Oluwale. The charity, which works for social justice, diversity, equality and inclusion, was set up in response to a call for a memorial in Leeds for David Oluwale by Leeds-raised author Caryl Phillips whose 2007 book Foreigners: Three English Lives included an account of Oluwale’s life and death. Phillips is a patron of the charity and one of the judges in the competition, alongside poet Ian Duhig and novelist Marina Lewycka.
David Oluwale arrived in Hull at the age of 19 from Nigeria in 1949 in search of a better life. In 1969 he was found drowned in the River Aire in Leeds. In the intervening years Oluwale had been homeless and destitute, suffered mental ill health, been a victim of racism and police brutality and had spent time in High Royds psychiatric hospital and Armley prison. In November 1971 two Leeds police officers were acquitted of his manslaughter but imprisoned for assaulting him. It is a tragic and shameful story of a man’s life destroyed by prejudice, sustained violent persecution and cruelty. Yet there was also hope and kindness in Oluwale’s story in the form of the care he received from nursing staff at High Royds, friends who tried to help him and people who testified on his behalf in the police inquiry after his death.
The new competition invites people to submit short stories and poems which creatively respond to Oluwale’s life and death for an anthology – to be published in June – that reflects on Oluwale’s story, highlighting its continuing relevance today. Poems and stories can be directly related to the events of Oluwale’s life or can take as their inspiration the related themes of marginalisation, exclusion or kindness and hope. “It is great to see something positive coming out of something so sad,” says Big Bookend co-ordinator Fiona Gell. “The work of the charity really brings all the issues that David had to deal with to the fore; it also says a lot about Leeds as a city – we want positive change. And this is exactly the kind of community-based project we at Big Bookend want to be involved in.”
The project came about when Max Farrar, secretary of the Remember Oluwale charity contacted author Sarah Bradley who runs Fictions of Every Kind and also has close links with the Big Bookend. “As a charity we think that the arts in all their forms are a marvellous way of raising awareness of difficult issues in a less didactic and more interactive way,” says Farrar. “We have done a lot of work in the past with poets and we are very interested in this creative response to these often emotive and controversial issues. We hope that people will respond with poems and stories that don’t just dwell on the darker aspects of David’s story but also on the positive steps that have been made by the city towards helping people in his position and looking to the future to a better, more just society.” The charity has raised money to fund the building of a Garden of Hope in the centre of Leeds, close to the area where Oluwale was last seen alive and work is scheduled to begin in April.
Bradley is part of the team of first readers for the competition – and it has got off to a good start. “We have had a lot of entries already which is brilliant,” she says. “It is such a good way of keeping David’s memory alive and it’s really important to keep reminding people of his experiences. Although his death was nearly fifty years ago, the issues he had to deal with are still being faced by people today.”
For more details about the competition and how to enter visit www.bigbookend.co.uk/rememberoluwalewritingprize
The deadline for submissions is March 6.