By Patricia Bastida Rodríguez (Universitat de les Illes Balears)
Born in Cambridge of Nigerian descent, Valerie Mason-John (a.k.a. Queenie, her stage name) spent most of her childhood in foster homes and childcare facilities which included a Dr Barnaldo’s Orphanage in Essex, UK. At 12 she spent a short period with her mother in London, but later returned to Dr Barnaldo’s after having attempted suicide. At 14 she was living in the streets but after some time she decided to start a new life. She studied Philosophy and Politics at Leeds University in the 1980s and in the 1990s she was a postgraduate student in Journalism Training, a period in which she also got a diploma in Mime and Physical Theatre at the Desmond Jones School. In 2003 she received an MA in Creative Writing, Education and the Arts at Sussex University and in 2006 a Teaching Certificate.
For years Mason-John was a journalist, working as an international correspondent covering Australian Aboriginal Land Rights or interviewing Sinn Fein prisoners in Northern Ireland, among other jobs. She also worked freelance for the BBC, Channel 4 and the Arts Council. In 2000 she received the Windrush Achievement Award: Arts and Community Pioneer for services to the black community in Britain. She has written articles for publications such as The Guardian, The Voice, The Morning Star or The Pink Paper. From 1992 to 1997 she was the editor of Feminist Arts News and she has also been artistic director of the Pride Arts Festival and the London Mardi Gras Arts Festival for several years. In 1997 she was considered one of Britain’s best-known black gay icons.
Her writing career was initiated when she was a journalist, when she co-authored and edited two books dealing with the lives of African and Asian lesbians in Britain: Lesbians Talk: Making Black Waves (London and Glasgow, Scarlett Press, 1993) and the anthology Talking Black: Lesbians of African and Asian Descent Speak Out (London, Cassell, 1994). In 1999 she published Brown Girl in the Ring: Plays, Prose and Poems (London, Get a Grip), her first collection of creative writing which included her literary production in different genres, among them her first play, Sin Dykes. After abandoning journalism Mason-John worked as an actress and performer – in this period she started to use the artistic name “Queenie” – and was Artist in Residence for the PUSH Festival at the Young Vic, the National Theatre and the Jerwood Space in London, as well as Holloway Prison and Elizabeth Garret Anderson School, among other institutions.
Her first novel, Borrowed Body (London, Serpent’s Tail), was published in 2005. It focuses on the difficult childhood and adolescence of Pauline, a black girl growing up in different foster homes in 1970s Britain who narrates her struggle to be accepted in a white racist society and to be loved by a Nigerian mother with rejects her “Englishness”. Partly autobiographical and deeply ironic in style, Borrowed Body, later republished as The Banana Kid (London, BAAF, 2008), depicts in original, humorous ways the innermost feelings and experiences of a child in her attempt to understand the world, to such acclaim that it received the Mind Book of the Year Award in 2006. The novel was also shortlisted for the Young Minds Award in 2005 and before its publication won the Black, Asian and Chinese Shoreline/Culture Word for First Chapters for a Novel Competition (2001) and the Culture Word Prize.
Mason-John has contributed to numerous literary and cultural publications. Among them we can highlight her interview in the journal Wasafiri (spring 2007) and her article in the critical volume Black British Aesthetics (Newcastle, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007), edited by Victoria Arana. She has also participated in radio and television shows and artistic exhibitions, sometimes as a performance poet. In 2007 she became an Honorary Doctor of Letters at East London University and was also the winner of the Lesbian, Gay Bisexual Transgendered Arts Award.
She is a woman of many interests: on her website she defines herself as an “author, playwright, performer, professional anger management and self-awareness trainer”. Thus, during the past years she has been a freelance trainer for anger management and conflict resolution designing programmes for schools, youth organisations and professionals. Her self-help manual Detox Your Heart (Cambridge, Windhorse, 2006) focuses precisely on how to control anger, hatred and fear. Another interesting aspect to be mentioned is the important role Buddhism has played in her life for the past sixteen years: she has even been ordained into the Western Buddhist Order. Her most recent book is entitled Broken Voices: Ex Untouchable Women Speak Out (New Delhi, India Research Press, 2008), a non-fictional exploration of the difficult position of Dalit women in India and the work carried out by Dr Ambedkar to help them. She has lived in London and also in the USA and is currently working on a new novel.
Gee, Maggie 2007: “Bringing the Head and the Body Together. Valerie Mason-John and Dorothea Smart in Conversation”. Wasafiri, no. 50, spring 2007, 14-20.
Mason-John, Valerie 2007: “Aesthetics of the Trans-Raised Diasporic Black British”. In Victoria Arana (ed.), Black British Aesthetics, Newcastle, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 337-344.