Guyanese poet Grace Nichols, part of the 100 Pioneering Women of Sussex series

Today we are celebrating Guyanese poet and children’s novelist, Grace Nichols. This blog has been researched and written by guest blogger Amy Zamarripa Solis, producer, writer and artist and is one of several Amy has written for this blog series about pioneering women of Sussex.

head shot colour photograph of Grace Nichols. She is smiling and looking away from the camera. She has short dark hair and is wearing rectangular glasses, long earrings and a black blazer. The background is a mottled blue.
Grace Nichols (c) Mike Park

Guyanese poet Grace Nichols (1950-present) is a hidden celebrity in Sussex. It was a thrilling discovery to learn that she lives not far outside of Brighton, nestled amongst the white cliffs of the South Downs. She lives there with writer partner John Agard.

Grace Nichols is a UK national treasure, read by all ages young and old. She is the author of several poetry and short story collections for adults and children and one novel. Her poetry is on school curriculum lists. She has won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1983 for I is a Long Memoried Woman, the Cholmondeley Award in 2000 and in 2007 was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Her work draws on her experiences of growing up in the Caribbean and her interest and experience of the female experience. Catching her read live is even more of a delight. A lilting voice, soft but steady, she draws on a body of poetic work developed from 1983 until present.

Grace Nichols was born in Georgetown, Guyana, in 1950 and grew up in a small country village on the Guyanese coast. She moved to the city with her family when she was eight, an experience central to her first novel, Whole of a Morning Sky (1986), set in 1960s Guyana in the middle of the country’s struggle for independence. She worked as a teacher and journalist before moving Britain in 1977.

“Not only rich music, an easy lyricism, but also grit, and earthy honesty, a willingness to be vulnerable and clean,” says fellow poet Gwendolyn Brooks of Grace’s poetry.

Grace Nichols books

It’s not hard to love the sassy wit of the titles of Grace’s poetry collections:

I is a Long-Memoried Woman (1983)

The Fat Black Woman’s Poems (1984)

Lazy Thoughts of a Lazy Woman (1989)

Sunris (1996)

I Have Crossed an Ocean: Selected Poems (2010)

Her poetry is influenced by her Caribbean upbringing, in particular the rhythms and culture, and Guyanese and Amerindian folklore.

Grace has also extended her writing flair for books for children, which include short story collections and poetry anthologies including

(1988), Give Yourself a Hug (1994), Everybody Got A Gift (2005), and Startling the Flying Fish (2006), which contains poems that tell the story of the Caribbean.

Her poetry is featured in the AQA, WJEC (Welsh Joint Education Committee), and Edexcel English/English Literature IGCSE anthologies — meaning that many IGCSE students in the UK have studied her work.

I had the honour of catching Grace read from more recent work “Picasso, I Want My Face Back” (2009), which is a collection based on her experiences as a writer in residence. She places her gaze on Dora Maar, who was one of Picasso’s most important muses for his work.

Grace says, “Her face haunted me. I wanted to give that face a voice. I was trying to be truthful to that voice. She was his muse and mistress for 10 years. When he left her, she suffered a mental breakdown and received electric shock treatment. So I have her reclaiming her face at the end of the long poem.”

Grace is an inspiration through her life and career as a poet and writer, sharing a slice of Guyana and the Caribbean and what it means to be a woman through her work.

 Written by Amy Zamarripa Solis

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