Is a partnership really just a contractual relationship? Sharmilla Beezmohun, co-founder and Director of Speaking Volumes, explores how building trust through partnership working can open new opportunities for innovation and inclusion.
Speaking Volumes is a London-based, independent literature producer with no regular core funding. Over the last ten years we’ve carved out a strong reputation for innovation and inclusivity. Our work constantly champions high-quality authors of all backgrounds, giving space to, among others, writers of colour or those from the working class; it’s our contribution to the wider ongoing struggle for racial equality and social justice.
One of main dictionary definitions of ‘partnership’ is ‘a contractual relationship between two or more persons carrying on a joint business venture with a view to profit, each incurring liability for losses and the right to share in the profits’ (see Collinsdictionary.com). However, we prefer to focus on the synonyms: ‘cooperation’, ‘association’, ‘alliance’, ‘sharing’. By doing so, we can ‘share in the profits’ of creating something that benefits not just each partner, but society more widely.
After we’ve conceived an idea, to turn it into reality we build or re-affirm partnerships with like-minded allies. These could be UK or international festivals, venues or arts organisations, or individuals who support Speaking Volumes more generally. The partnerships themselves can take many forms — such as working together on one event or a whole series, or consulting experts in specific areas we’re exploring; they might begin and end at different points of a project. Whatever form they take and however long they last, they are absolutely at the core of what we do. Professor Maggi Morehouse of Coastal Carolina University is a key example here; as well as providing regular financial sponsorship of our ongoing Breaking Ground project highlighting British writers of colour, she’s also a great sounding board for any new ideas we may have.
Beyond the paperwork of the contractual event agreement, this sort of alliance engenders trust and creates a ripple effect, whereby other like-minded people who see our work want to be part of what we’re doing in the future. In recent years, that’s led to new partnerships with StrongBack Productions, run by Dominique Le Gendre, and with independent producer Lucy Hannah — bringing us into new circles of association too. Beyond the life of the immediate partnership project, we can pick up the phone and bat ideas around, talk through issues, discuss the politics of the day, express frustrations and setbacks… for any independent organisation with a social conscience, this is our lifeblood.
Don’t get me wrong. We need funds to do our work, and money is always an ongoing critical issue. But without the meaningful partnerships which create a spirit of cooperation and sharing, we wouldn’t have survived for ten years, nor would we have had the courage and confidence to act on our ideas. So my advice to anyone in the same boat is to look for and hold on to those allies, support what you can where you can – with money or publicity or just by listening – and this will create a solid foundation on which you can build.
Sharmilla Beezmohun has worked in publishing since 1994, training at Virago and on Heinemann’s African and Caribbean Writers Series. For 11 years she was Deputy Editor of Wasafiri, the Magazine of International Contemporary Writing. In 2010 she co-founded Speaking Volumes Live Literature Productions with Sarah Sanders, joined in 2012 by Nick Chapman. Speaking Volumes’ work includes their original Breaking Ground concept (2013 on), which showcases writers of colour in the UK and abroad. The latest iteration, Breaking New Ground, champions British writers and illustrators of colour for children and young adults.
In 2010 Sharmilla’s first novel, Echoes of a Green Land, was published in translation in Spain as Ecos de la tierra verde. She edited the academic collection Continental Shifts, Shifts in Perception: Black Cultures and Identities in Europe (2016); and, with Sarah White and Roxy Harris, co-edited A Meeting of the Continents: The International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books — Revisited (2005). An anthology celebrating ten years of Speaking Volumes entitled “Not Quite Right for Us”: Forty Writers Speak Volumes, edited by Sharmilla, will be published by flipped eye in May 2021.
Sharmilla’s essays and articles have been published in various journals and translated into Finnish. Sharmilla is a Trustee of Carcanet Publishers, Modern Poetry in Translation magazine and the George Padmore 25 Institute, an archive housing unique collections of material from pioneering Black British political and cultural organisations of the last seventy years. She is on the International Organising Committee of AfroEurope@s, a crosscontinent academic and cultural network. Sharmilla also continues to work as a freelance editor.
In 2019 Sharmilla became an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.