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02 December 2020

Sandeep Mahal: ‘Have fellow travellers alongside you who can help… connect with other writers.’

by Discoveries Discoveries, Writing Tips

CBC and Curtis Brown are proud to be partnering with the Women’s Prize Trust and NatWest to create Discoveries, a writing development prize and programme that offers aspiring female authors of all ages and backgrounds encouragement and support at the beginning of their creative journeys.

This week the Discoveries team talk books and writing advice with Director for Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature Sandeep Mahal. Sandeep is also part of the inaugural Discoveries Prize judging panel – she will be joining author and founder of the Women’s Prize Kate Mosse, CBC’s founder and managing director Anna Davis, Curtis Brown literary agent Lucy Morris and international bestselling author Abi Daré.

Can you tell us a bit about what you do as Director for Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature?

It’s a wide-ranging job and an immensely enjoyable place to work. For a small city, Nottingham has an incredibly rich literary and storied scene – literature is a vital ingredient in the city’s success. It is therefore crucial that it continues to grow, and my role is to help it do so. One of the ways we do that is by encouraging and amplifying the stories we want to see in the world.

As we confront the devastating fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic and face up to a future of huge economic uncertainty, we are centring young people within our city and the shifting world they are growing up in and the inevitable challenges they’ll be facing. This year, our MyVoice, Speak Up! and Letters of Solidarity creative writing programmes have given us insight into how young people see the world and I believe that from this energised and informed space we can grow critical young thinkers, who find joy in both the written and spoken word and crucially, can help our UNESCO mission of building a better world with words.

What was your pathway into the creative industry?

I came through a positive discrimination recruitment scheme during a time when public libraries were setting targets to reflect the communities they served. If I was only to have a career based on my ethnicity, I didn’t want it. But it was a way in and I soon discovered that these kinds of grassroots initiatives are an important part of the fight for greater inclusion and diversity in the industry. Little did I know then that I’d fall accidentally and passionately in love with the work of libraries. It ended up being a way to become educated, to get to university and to forge a career, first in public libraries, and then eventually in the arts and literature sector.

What first inspired you to work in the literary community?

The belief in the power of literature as a reflection of humanity and a way for everyone to better understand each other and the world we live in, a sector filled with pride and passion, and crucially, talented writers I’ve had the enormous privilege of supporting and celebrating.

Who is your favourite fictional character?

I have such a deep relationship with reading and there are so many people I’ve only met through the written word, so it’s difficult to pick a favourite… but if I had to choose which fictional character I’d most like to be stuck with for several months in a lockdown situation, I’d say Matilda. She taught me to cure loneliness with books, to find power in ideas, and her strong sense of justice and clever sassiness makes her the girl we all longed to be at school.

Which book do you always recommend to others?

The books I always recommend are usually those I’ve most recently read and loved. Right now, I’m recommending the Women’s Prize for Fiction-winning Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell and My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay.

What’s your favourite debut novel of 2020 so far?

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams. It’s the book I keep on gifting.

If you could tell your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?

Don’t be afraid. It will be difficult and you need perseverance – but you will exceed the expectations your culture has of you as a woman and a woman of colour. There will be surprising people to help you along the way and things will start to fall into place. You’ll grow more confident and content with yourself, and you’ll be amazing.

We’re so pleased to have you onboard as a judge for the inaugural Discoveries Prize – do you have any advice for aspiring authors getting ready to submit to the prize?

This is probably the most obvious bit of advice, but have fellow travellers alongside you who can really help. Getting someone else to look at your work before you send it is a great way to prepare your writing for submission, and also, a great way to connect with other writers. Don’t struggle alone.

Find out more about Discoveries and how to enter the prize.

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