Hannah Lowe: making her claim

In her debut book Chick, poet Hannah Lowe — born in the UK to an Afro-Jamaican father and white British mother — comes to terms with family history

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  • Hannah Lowe. Photograph by Tim Ridley

Despite the swell of her belly, Hannah Lowe is perched, apparently comfortably, on a wide bench at the British Library in London. The child who is coming will bear her father’s name, she says. “It’s important for me not to lose the name, because the child won’t feel the connection to the Caribbean that I do.”

Chick, Lowe’s first collection of poetry — published in February 2013, and shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection — is also named for her father. A mixed-race Chinese-black Jamaican immigrant to Britain, Chick was a professional gambler who was already in his fifties when Lowe and her brother were born. They grew up in Ilford, just outside London, where their white British mother was deputy head teacher at a primary school.

The complex legacy of her father’s life is at the heart of Lowe’s writing. Not only was he a gambler, he was also willing to stack the odds in his own favour. Lowe and her brother knew their father gambled for a living, but that he played dishonestly was something they saw only in glimpses. Her brother caught him ironing cellophane around a pack of cards, to make them appear new; in a hall cupboard there was a little guillotine for shaving the sides off of cards; there were pots of ink, penknives, and scalpels around the house, and a dentist’s drill her father used for loading dice. These objects inhabit her poems, but only past childhood did she make sense of them.

“When I said to my mum later, ‘Where was Dad doing this?’ she said, ‘Oh, love, he’d be doing it wherever you weren’t.’ The way that that sort of shifts the memories of your childhood is quite incredible,” Lowe explains. “And then these little things start to make sense: I remember seeing him loading dice and not knowing what he was doing, and the door sort of being pushed shut in my face.”

All of this within the façade of white middle-class family life. Both children looked white. “We both really identified as being white, because we were both treated as white. We are white in one way, but I think there was always the sense of feeling very different as well,” Lowe says. More than just the presence of their black father, there was, for example, the fact that they ate Jamaican food. Their father spent nights out gambling, returning to the family home at dawn, then much of the day asleep, but he did all the cooking. “He was a house husband. But he wasn’t like a traditional man — he was happy to do all the cooking, make cakes and puddings. He loved all that.”

Lowe’s was a childhood full of contradictions. Her father both was, and was not, part of family life. They all went on family holidays together, but Lowe says he sometimes felt like a lodger. He ferried the children around, but Lowe was known to tell friends he was a taxi driver her mother had sent to collect her. “I was always having to explain him to other people,” she says, “but it wasn’t just the fact that he was black and I was white. It was the fact that he was so old. He looked like a grandfather, and often he’d just got out of bed because he’d been playing cards all night, so he was this old dishevelled man with his hair stood on end.” One of the difficulties about promoting Chick, she says, is getting across that it’s “not just about having a black dad,” but about all the things her father was.

Ralph Lowe (“Chick” was a gambling nickname) had a tragic upbringing. Born in Jamaica in 1925 to a Chinese immigrant shopkeeper and his black servant, he believed that his own father had “bought” him from his mother to use as a lackey in the shop. Lowe says her grandmother gave up all claim to her son and later refused to acknowledge him, and her father found a receipt which seemed to indicate money had changed hands. Ralph was brutalised by his father, and would often run to his mother’s house, begging her to let him stay, only to be sent back. Lowe says her father was haunted by the knowledge that his mother didn’t want him.

Much of what Lowe knows about her father’s early life is from notebooks and tapes he used to document his own story. Lowe was studying literature at university, “and I kept doing courses in black women’s writing and postcolonial literature, but I wasn’t putting it together. I just thought, Oh, I’m interested in this. I was just beginning to realise that perhaps I was interested in the story of his life, and in my identity and how race is constructed, all of those things — and then he died.”

Because of his age and lifestyle, her father had been ill for much of her childhood, but was diagnosed with cancer while she was at university. The cancer went away, but came back two or three years later, by which time Lowe had started a master’s degree in refugee studies. It was just three weeks between this new diagnosis and his eventual death. Her mother called her at university and told her to come home. “By the time I got there, he could hardly talk any more. It put me — without being overly dramatic — into a sort of psychic crisis. I realised that I needed to know his story, and he was going to die, and there was nothing I could do to bring him back. It was just too late.” When he lost consciousness, Lowe was completely grief-stricken. “But it was not just the grief of losing a father, it was a sort of cultural grief, really.”

For “years and years and years after,” she would dream he was still alive. “In these dreams I go out into the street. I’d be looking for him, the road signs would be all wrong. They were sad dreams. I can laugh about them now, but I was always dreaming that I had the chance to talk to him again.” Long after his death, and after many years of academic writing, Lowe began writing poems about Ralph. She joined a creative writing class, and it became a running joke that every week she would bring in a new poem about her father. A decade on, with the publication of Chick, and having just found a publisher for a family memoir which intersperses chapters about her own childhood with fictionalised chapters about 1930s Jamaica based on her father’s notebooks, she may finally have gone as far as she needs to into her father’s life. Although her racial identity remains an open question.

At a recent history conference, Lowe witnessed an eminent white historian being challenged by a woman in the audience, who wanted to know when he felt the narrating of black history should be in the hands of black people, and what he was doing to facilitate this. Lowe seems personally affected by having witnessed the exchange. She says that after years and years of never making any claim on a black identity — “for all the reasons that I wouldn’t, because I have had all the privileges of a white upbringing, to the extent that I know those privileges still exist” — the experience of publishing Chick made her realise that hers is accepted as another black British voice. “But to hear that woman say that — I still can’t square it.” The only thing of which she is certain is that there are no absolutes. “Twenty or thirty years ago in Britain, when minority literature, black literature, started getting studied, things were said like, ‘These are voices from the margins that have unique insights,’ and I think things that I can say complicate that a bit, because I’m not a voice from the margins at all.”

She wonders if the things that she can say might make people think about “passing” and ideas around it — “because, let’s face it, two hundred years ago, if I’d been born in Jamaica, I’d have been a slave. On the ‘one drop’ theory of racial purity, plantations in Jamaica had people working on them who looked like me . . . Does it make people think, actually, what is race, what does ‘black’ look like?” Lowe wants the child she is carrying to share the legacy of her father, although she’s still unsure how this will be communicated. Will it involve having to say something like, Oh, my dad was black? “For years and years and years I never said anything like that. It was in poetry that I got to make a claim.”

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