Beena Nadeem

Q&A with City Lit scholarship recipient Beena Nadeem

8 June 2020
Posted in: Stories

City Lit launched the Malorie Blackman ‘Unheard Voices’ Scholarships in 2019. The programme provides three annual awards worth up to £1000 each to fund study within the City Lit Creative Writing department.

The awards seek to support and encourage the creative and professional development of ‘unheard voices’, and can be used to fund courses within the City Lit Creative Writing department.

Last week we announced the three winners of the scholarship programme and we’ll be following their writing adventures this year. 

Beena Nadeem is one of the three recipients of the Malorie Blackman scholarship for ‘Unheard Voices’. We recently caught up with Beena to find out more about her City Lit experiences, winning the scholarship, and her future ambitions…

In a nutshell, can you tell us a little bit more about yourself? 

I was born in Leeds to Pakistani parents who came to Yorkshire in what was the coldest winter on record – 1963. They went from living in a tiny back-to-back terrace in inner-city Leeds with my three sisters – and having to share an outside loo with seven other families (not all at the same time) to a move to the suburbs. By the time I came along – 45 long years ago, they had moved to a nice middle-class enclave of Leeds (where they hadn’t really had families like us before, apart from one other Asian family who my parents immediately befriended). At the time, I was the only Asian person to attend a particularly anaemic comprehensive where I learned how hard it was to be a different colour to everyone else. At the same time I found what an incredible escape writing can be. Strangely though, many moons later when I took one of my first jobs in journalism (I moved to London to do my post-grad’ here) in the Asian press – people said I wasn’t quite Asian enough!… No pleasing some people.

By now, I’m very smug to say – I’m happy! I live with my lovely pianist partner Ian, with whom I share a lot of laughs, and my beautifully clever and funny 10-year-old daughter. And also, in the style of one who lives in north London, we have one very overweight and privileged cat, who, to fit in with a certain pedigree – should be reading The Guardian far more regularly than he does.  

What role does writing play in your life, and why is it important to you? 

Writing is whatever you create for whoever you put in there, you control the narrative (idealy) and sometimes it takes you to the most unsuspecting places – it’s a wonderfully life-affirming thing to do and what’s great is whoever you put there is firmly supposed to be there (even when they’re not)! I absolutely adore the way words can skip along quite merrily one day, then prise open someone’s heart the next and leave them rock bottom by the next chapter. For some, it can resonate deeply, and often in the strangest or most surreal of places. It’s a wonderful way of being curious and nosey, all the while learning about the world vicariously, from the gritty to the beautiful, bones and all. 

Who are your favourite writers and what stories have inspired you?

I loved Stoner by John Williams. It’s sad to hear that it was more than fifty years after it was published that it got the notoriety it deserved and hit the bestsellers list. Its protagonist is a stoic and intelligent man, who’s dealing with constant disappointments people can deliver from day-to-day academia, family, and relationships, which, in his case continue to unravel until his uneventful death. There’s nothing heart-stopping or hyperbolic about it, but it reaches a deep-reaching sadness and poignancy that I found so well-crafted into words that it will always be a favourite.

Another much-loved book is A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. It’s bleak, powerful, and all-consuming. Actually, I remember finding it mentally exhausting to read, yet I was inextricably trapped in its pages. I needed a huge hug and a drink when it finished. A wonderful read! 

If I could write anything half as compelling as these two people, I would be full of the joys of a thousand chaffinches in a well-endowed cherry tree!

What made you decide to study at City Lit?

I knew about its rich pedigree of authors and others who come to teach there – and really wanted to crank up my creative writing through learn more about technique, receive constructive criticism, and generally improve. I wanted some advice grounded in experience and honesty and got exactly this through Christina Dunhill’s creative writing classes. I’ve found these hugely supportive, constructive, and knowledgeable. City Lit is also somewhere that offers flexibility – a great bonus when you have a child and work for yourself, enabling you to fit in classes. It’s relatively affordable, making the whole thing something you don’t need to just tentatively talk about doing, but can actually do. I’ve also met some very incredible, as it happens, female writers who are bright and very able – it’s a joy to hear their work.  

What courses have you studied at City Lit?

Travel writing, Features writing with Susan Grossman and also Ways into Creative Writing and the next more advanced class taken by Christina Dunhill. I am so excited about doing more writing classes with City Lit. 

What made you decide to apply for the Malorie Blackman scholarship?

My tutor, Christina Dunhill suggested I give it a go. And I thought, well I’d really like to keep writing – if this works out, I may be able to do more. I was struggling, like many freelance journalists to make anything close to a living, which meant writing courses have never been a financial priority as the money was always needed elsewhere. This is a wonderful opportunity to enable me to take my writing up a level and give myself permission to dedicate more hours towards it – all guilt-free! 

Malorie Blackman is also an incredible example of someone who doesn’t give up. She’s a real favourite of my daughter too, so it’s a real honour to be chosen by her. 

What do you hope to achieve through the scholarship scheme?

It has given me permission to be more involved with writing – something I would love. I’m seriously ecstatic about it and I can’t wait to get started. I dabbled in a few courses and was really glad I did. City Lit has a rich culture in producing good authors and being taught by people who really know their stuff is what I was after. For a long time, I couldn’t afford the courses – I fell into that grey area of being self-employed earning a truly terrible wage – but not entitled to benefits, hence no course discounts! This scholarship will enable me to pursue my dream of writing more as it gives me permission to carry on doing something that doesn’t necessarily draw in a wage, and that I’ve had to keep in the background for such a long time. It’s inspired me to take risks and give things a shot, and I feel I’ll be able to do this properly with a great pedigree of people helping me to navigate the choppy waters of writing and maybe publishing. 


Read more about our ‘unheard voices’ scholarship programme > 

Find out more about our creative writing courses > 

Read here the Q&A with City Lit Scholarship recipient Celestine Fraser >

Beena and her sonBeena and her son