Q&A | Malorie Blackman Scholarship Recipient Emily Robb

Q&A | Malorie Blackman Scholarship Recipient Emily Robb

8 August 2022
Posted in: Stories, Humanities

— Congratulations to Malorie Blackman Scholarship Winner Emily Robb

  • City Lit catches up with creative writing student Emily Robb, one of the winners of this year's Malorie Blackman Scholarship for 'Unheard Voices' 
  • We find out more about her time at City Lit, winning the scholarship and her ambitions...

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’ve been following their writing adventures this year. 

Portrait image of Emily Robb - Creative Writing at City LitPortrait image of Emily Robb - Creative Writing at City Lit
Emily Robb - Creative Writing Student at City Lit

Discover our Scholarship Programme.

The awards seek to support and encourage the creative and professional development of ‘unheard voices' at City Lit.

Discover our creative writing programme.

Learn to write stories, articles and poetry in the same college where big names in literature such as Malorie Blackman and Andrea Levy have trained.

Q: Tell us a little bit more about yourself and your writing background?

A: I’m a 25-year-old writer and English literature graduate, and for the past four years I’ve been navigating a shaky path through the full time job of chronic illness. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t a path I would have chosen, and in throwing out the roadmap I’d been following for most of my life, it’s one that has entirely changed the way I live.

Strangely, this has not been completely bad. Without stability, you learn to hone in on what’s here now, and to listen a little more attentively to what it is you need or want from one moment to the next. It’s like re-tuning. Over the last few years I’ve come to find more and more joy in the smallest of things; they are the pieces our lives are made up of - a good sentence, a phone call, the sky - and I think I’ll always be in some way grateful for the adjustment of my focus that let all of that in.

In terms of my writing background, I’ve always been writing! I spent the first few years of my life in the bookshop my parents and grandparents ran together, so the stage was, in fairness, quite well set. I can’t think of a time when writing didn’t feel like a compulsion; I’ve been scribbling things (of varying quality) in notebooks, book margins, and phone notes for as long as I can remember.


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Q: What role does writing play in your life?

A: Writing has always offered me a means of communication, joy, clarity, release - it’s the place I go to distil my life, and where I feel most connected with myself. In recent years this has been even more essential - writing about and through illness has diffused some of its power over me by putting me back behind the wheel. There is relief in that. ME/CFS is tyrannical and consuming, but when I’m writing about this thing I didn’t choose, I can haul myself out from beneath it; turn it - even for a moment - into something I can control.

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

A: How long do you have! I think I gravitate most towards distinct and lyrical voices - Virginia Woolf, Joan Didion, Elizabeth Hardwick, James Baldwin. I like writing that sharpens your experience of the world; that dislodges you from the familiar in order to serve it up some way new. Frank O’Hara’s poetry does this for me, as does Sylvia Plath’s and Hera Lindsay Bird’s. Then, there are voices that have been in my head so long they feel like people I know - I’m thinking of Jane Austen, but also of Nora Ephron; I wouldn’t be who I am without either of their work. And a new favourite is Eve Babitz. Plunging myself into the deliciousness of her world - her savouring of light and life and colour - has been a saving grace for me during a difficult summer.

Equally, I’m just as often inspired by music - by the rich playfulness of artists like Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Fiona Apple, Miles Davis. They open out another kind of creative dimension for me, one that is deep and immersive, and I always find myself trying to reach the places they go to in my own work.

More than fictional ones, the stories that have inspired me most are ones like these: Joni Mitchell creating a new way to play the guitar after polio weakened her left hand; Frida Kahlo turning to paint when an accident left her bed-bound in agony; Lucille Clifton’s short and chiselled poems reflecting the bursts of time she found to write between caring for her six children.

I don’t mean that I like redemption narratives - these are so often reductive and leave no space for the realities of struggle. I mean I like art that takes the shape of a person’s life. That doesn’t force itself into conventional moulds, but is reflective of the body that produced it. I think that’s where the magic lies; when you stop playing to someone else’s script.

Q: Why did you choose City Lit?

A: I started my first City Lit course on the tail end of both a lockdown and a several-month M.E relapse. As you can imagine, it had been a particularly isolating time and also one where I felt quite distant from myself, so I was searching around, looking for something that might bring me back to life a little. In all ways, City Lit was the answer. Through brilliant online teaching and generative group feedback, the classes began to hone my writing into something more determined and distinct, all whilst bringing vitality and new friendships into the comfort of my home.

The accessibility team, crucially, are beyond amazing; their nuanced and tailored support makes it so that sick and disabled students can be sure to get just as much out of their courses as anyone else. I couldn’t be happier I discovered City Lit when I did - they have given me in all ways what Joan Didion’s notebooks once gave her: paid passage back to the world out there.

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Q: What courses have you studied at City Lit?

A: Last spring I took Creative non-fiction with Paul Laffan, followed by Advanced creative non-fiction with Julie Garton in the autumn. My writing had been taking the shape of creative non-fiction before I formally knew what that meant, and I realised that in spite of having an English degree, I had never actually studied the kind of writing I was most drawn to and taken up by. Despite loving fiction as a reader, I’ve never felt the same magnetism towards writing it as I have nonfiction - the stuff of real life has always been too consuming to me. In the idea of creative nonfiction, then, I found what I’d been driving towards: nonfiction written with the craft, lyricism and richness of fiction, a perfect symbiosis of life and art.

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

A: Firstly, that it was another example of City Lit’s extraordinary inclusivity efforts - a scholarship structured around giving access to those most frequently denied it. As someone on disability benefits, the opportunity of this was invaluable, allowing me the chance to continue developing my writing in ways that might otherwise not have been an option. The idea of Unheard Voices, too, rang true for me, specifically after two years of a pandemic where sick and disabled voices are suffering more invisibility and erasure than ever.

Secondly - and this is maybe the more obvious answer - because it’s Malorie Blackman! I grew up knowing her as the Children’s Laureate, and as an electric example of the powers of imagination. More recently, learning she was a former student of City Lit was another of the deciding factors in my choosing to study there. The chance to have my work read by her was one I couldn’t miss, and I feel incredibly honoured that she liked it enough to select me!

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Q: What do you hope to achieve through the scholarship scheme?

A: I’m hoping to continue developing my style and form, whilst using the structure of the courses to work on a larger writing project I’ve had marinating for the last year or so. The ingredients are all there, but I need the kitchen to bring them together in! 

"Thank you to both Malorie Blackman and City Lit for this opportunity, I can’t wait to see where these courses will take me."

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