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24Dec

In Conversation: Precious Williams

Precious: A True Story is described as a poignant tale about childhood, abandonment, identity, relationships, family, life’s obstacles and survival. In her own words, Precious Williams talks about her decision to write about her childhood and why she is not bitter about life or the vents that occurred.

Precious WilliamsBelinda: How long did it take you to write Precious?

Precious Williams: It took about a year to write Precious, but several more years to do all the research.  For the initial, very raw draft I relied on my memory.  I then embarked on the long, long process of fact-checking the book: verifying dates, events and facts by going through court documents, school reports, medical records etc, and by interviewing family members and family friends. Then I went through all the documents and data I had collated with a lawyer.  Then I had family members read the manuscript and give their feedback.

Belinda: Your world at a young age was very hard to take in, from being shuffled about to the abuse you endured and could never talk to anyone about. Was doing your research a cathartic experience in any way or was it also a chance for you to deal with things you may not have dealt with?

Precious Williams: You are right that it was a tough childhood but the interesting thing is that I didn’t realise how tough my childhood was while I was busy living it.  There wasn’t anyone (i.e. an adult) telling me there was anything unusual about my situation so I grew up presuming that it was kind of normal to be raped, live in foster care, not meet your father etc.  Obviously now that I am an adult I realise that none of it was ‘normal’ or acceptable.  I now work with a couple of charities to help raise awareness about child abuse and its long-term psychological effects. I have heard people say that writing their life story has been a cathartic experience for them.  My personal experience is a little different.  I dealt with my “stuff”in therapy before writing my book.  I wrote my memoir because writing is what I do for a living, and because I felt I had an interesting story to share.  I do not think that writing a book, publishing it, and having it reviewed in the press – possibly harshly – is going to help anybody heal from childhood trauma.  For example, One critic complained in her review that my memoir – in her view – was a ‘misery memoir’ and she implied that writing a memoir about enduring and overcoming childhood abuse is clichéd and has been done-to-death.  Imagine how crushed and invalidated a writer would feel by that response if they’d written their memoir as an aide to healing and to find their voice! Fortunately, because I’d already done my healing in the appropriate setting (behind closed doors, in a therapist’s office) I was able to just shrug the comment off and think, “So maybe my book’s a misery memoir.  And?”

Belinda: Let’s talk about the different people in your book, from your biological mother to your foster mother, to your foster mother’s daughter and son-in-law and the different people that you meet along the way.  How did these different people shape and inform you and your ability to forge relationships and in particular trust people?

Precious Williams: I was raised by my elderly white foster mother who I called Nanny.  Nanny’s grown-up-daughter Wendy and Wendy’s husband Mick lived just around the corner and I had an extremely close bond with them both.  The West Sussex town I grew up in was very small and very close-knit and it was 99% white.  Naturally, I stood out and not a necessarily in a positive way.  To the local National Front I was an eyesore, I was a “nig-nog” and “that little jungle bunny.”  Nanny, Wendy, Mick and I lived on a council estate.  Contrastingly my birth mother came from a well-heeled Nigerian family and was used to privilege. My mother would arrive on our council estate to visit me, accompanied by uncles and cousins who might be senators, barristers and doctors.  These family members (my mother included) had a very condescending attitude towards my foster family.  I was caught up in the middle.  In 1970s Britain black people were seen by whites in general as inherently inferior.  But my Nigerian family regarded my working-class white foster family as little more than servants. I was caught up in the middle and I felt very isolated. I didn’t really trust anyone – I was an army of one!  Although I had a lot of friends at my all-white local school, I still felt like I didn’t fit in anywhere.  In adult life this feeling became an advantage though – instead of feeling I didn’t fit in anywhere, I began to feel I could fit in everywhere.  It’s always possible to turn a negative into a positive!

Belinda: Race is one subject/theme which features a lot in your story, when did you get to the place where you were comfortable with who you were in the midst of people that were very different to you?

Precious Williams: Becoming comfortable with who I am happened gradually and spontaneously.  The older I get – I am in my 30s now – the more comfortable I feel with myself in general.  I think this journey towards self-acceptance is something everybody goes through regardless of whether they had a strange, marginalised childhood or not.

Belinda: Have you been able to reconnect to the African side of you and are you still in touch with that part of your heritage?

Precious Williams: There’s more than just an African ‘side’ to me – I am 100% African.  I am African, made-in-Britain.  I’ve had the privilege of spending a little bit of time in western Africa and in other parts of Africa too.  I believe that Africa and Africanness is a Diasporic thing and I feel a very strong kinship with African-Americans and Carribbeans.

Belinda: You went through different stages….one of which was developing a good self esteem/self-image and at some point it came across that you were keen on approval from others, especially that of your biological mum.  What would you say to young girls who find themselves in the same position today?

Precious Williams: As a young child I hated being black and I honestly felt that all black people, especially me, were naturally ugly.  In feeling this way I was reflecting the prevalent attitudes around me that time. My memoir ends with me as a young woman, entering Oxford University in the early 1990s.  By that point I no longer hated my physical appearance.  My shift in attitude about my looks had a lot to do with what was happening in pop culture at that time.  I was still living in a predominately white environment but black women had suddenly, to an extent, stopped being ‘invisible’. Naomi Campbell had arrived on the fashion scene.  Hip-hop was capturing mainstream attention.  Janet Jackson was one of the nation’s hottest pin-ups. That said, all that had happened was that I had gone from feeling unspeakably ugly to feeling that I was really quite cute.  That is NOT true self-esteem or self-worth.  I still didn’t feel authentic pride in being African.  I still, at that point in time, didn’t really like or even know myself.  I didn’t experience true self-worth until I was over 30! My message to young girls is that self-love is the most important love there is.  You can’t even truly love or be loved without love of self.

preciousBelinda: Your definition of beauty in your book, especially in your young days seems to have been shaped by the things you heard and saw, from your hair to your face….what’s your definition of beauty today?

Precious Williams: My definition of beauty as a child, growing up in a white town was that to be beautiful you had to look as white as possible.  I honestly didn’t feel it was possible for a black person to be physically attractive unless they had white blood.  That was the prevailing attitude.  When I spent time with my Nigerian family I’d notice they’d tell me how pretty I was but instead of making me feel good, it made me feel humiliated.  I was convinced they were taking the p*ss.  The negative attitude I absorbed regarding black women and beauty didn’t only come from white people though.  My Nigerian relatives would confuse the hell out of me by praising my relatively “fair” skin and at the same time lamenting my “tough” hair.  I’m happy to say I’ve gotten over all of that crap today but it took a long time.   What is my definition of beauty today?  How can I possibly define what beauty is?  It’s in the eye of the beholder.  Some of the women in the public eye I think are especially beautiful are Erykah Badu, Goapele, Lauryn Hill, Mary J Blige and Kerry Washington.

Belinda: What has the response been to your book since its release, here in the UK and in the US?

Precious Williams: I’ve been thrilled and stunned by the positive response and by the level of interest in my book.  So far every time I’ve appeared at a literary event or given a guest lecture here in the UK, at least one person has approached me at the end of the event to reveal that they have some connection to transracial private fostering.  Either they were fostered themselves, or they had their own child fostered, or they are connected in some other way.  I get a lot of emails, especially from the US, from white parents who have adopted or are in the process of adopting, African children.  They seem really concerned about getting everything right and raising their adoptive children to have good self-image. That is so heart-warming, I love it! One recurring reaction that has surprised me though is the fact that almost every journalist or critic who has interviewed me or reviewed my book has referred to my childhood experiences as “harrowing,” or “shattering.” As I said earlier, there was never a point in my childhood where I sat around thinking “damn my life is harrowing!” – I was too busy getting on with it.  So it has been a bit of a shock to suddenly be written about as if I’m a victim.  I’m a survivor, not a victim.  One journalist even seemed somewhat affronted by the fact that I’ve been through all this crap but  have still remained confident and positive and happy.  She wanted to know why and how I was “so poised” and instead of seeming happy that I’d come through it all with a smile on my face she seemed disturbed that I wasn’t more of a mess.  To be fair though, I suppose most people won’t have been through such extreme abuse and they may well feel quite appalled by my experiences.  Perhaps some feel that, given my past, I should be staggering along the street in rags, clutching a can of lager. People don’t always enjoy it when you fly in the face of their definition of what you should be.

Belinda: When you look back, are you bitter or still angry at anyone?

Precious Williams: No I do not feel bitter at all.   I do not condone the things that happened in my childhood but I can see clearly how things came to happen as they did.

Belinda: If you could change anything within the foster system, what would it be?

Precious Williams: More black foster parents and adoptive parents are needed.  More positive black social workers are needed. I also believe there is still much institutional racism within local authorities and that this is part of the reason a disproportionate number of black and mixed-race children wind up in Care in the first place.  That said, through my lecturing and charity work I’ve been fortunate enough to meet several wonderful black foster parents recently who really challenge the media perception that black people don’t come forward to foster/adopt.

Belinda: What do you want people to take away from reading your book?

Precious Williams: I’d like people to come away from my story believing that the most important thing in life is to define yourself and never, ever let anybody else’s limiting definition of you become your reality.

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Precious: A True Story is published by Bloomsbury

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2 Responses to “In Conversation: Precious Williams”

  1. interesting. the issues resonate with most of us at some point or another!

  2. Belinda Otas says:

    True talk…

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