From the archives: Why simple living and minimalist lifestyles need to be more inclusive

While I’m away for the summer, I’m dipping into the Our Story Time archives and sharing some of my most popular pieces for those of you new to Our Story Time, and who may have missed these, and also for those of you who have been beloved readers for a while and might enjoy remembering the pieces I’ve written. When I am back, I will be publishing a long essay on reading more inclusively - so see this as a refresher. This post first appeared in November, 2018.

Inclusivity in simple living and minimalist lifestyles. More on my blog, Our Story Time www.ourstorytime.co.uk

I don’t call myself a minimalist but I like the notion of simplicity. My version of it is, well, pretty simple. I am appreciative of any effort to make the running around of daily life a little less chaotic. And I’m curious about how other people do it; the streamlined homes that are functional and not merely decorative; the pared-down capsule wardrobes. I enjoy reading about simple living. I have my favourites on the subject. I even sometimes try to write about it too.

But lately, I have found and felt that other people’s versions of simplicity or minimalism or slow living have started to look the same. Those streamlined homes, again; those pared-down capsule wardrobes; those lonely landscapes of sameness.

Sameness breeds sameness and in all that sameness there’s no room for difference. And by difference, what I really mean is: diversity. Is there room for people of different colours and backgrounds to choose to participate in this privileged and nice-looking lifestyle of less where people willingly give up what they have spent money on? Is there enough room for different efforts and different stories to be noticed? For different voices to be heard? I’m not sure.

I’m noticing this lack of inclusion more and more, not just in pretty pictures which perpetuate this certain kind of lifestyle for a certain kind of person, but also in magazines and podcasts that explore the same concepts of lifestyle and simplicity and creativity, and everything that goes hand in hand with that, too.

There is spirit and sisterly community shared between friends who appear to already know each other (and this is wonderful for them) but as someone who has often if not always been in the position of an observer, on the edges looking in by virtue of my name and my background, it also seems closed off - even if it is entirely unwittingly so. I have felt this whole vibe to be like an outdated elite girls’ school clique. In angrier moments, it has made me furious. I wonder, sometimes, what on earth I am trying to achieve and why.

In 2014, Kinfolk was called out for its lack of inclusivity. In an interview with The New York Times, one of the Kinfolk founders reportedly referred to the magazine’s lack of racial diversity as an:

“unfortunate oversight, not meant to signal that the Kinfolk lifestyle was for only young, willowy white people. He said: "We’re about living with intention, thinking about what you’re doing and trying to enjoy the smaller things, like a meal, a conversation, time out with friends. That’s what we’re focused on, and obviously anyone has access to that.” He paused. “Well,” he said, “at least most people.”

Kinfolk’s latest issue features interviews with political artist Shirin Neshat and author Elif Shafak. But it’s still an overwhelmingly bleak monoculture. I too believe in living with intention, but the Kinfolk lifestyle does not speak to me, nor to so many other women from black or ethnic minority backgrounds and also white and mixed backgrounds with whom I’ve had these conversations in private. I know many people will say that they don’t read Kinfolk either, but I use it here merely as an example. For there are still so many publications and so many people that have made the same “unfortunate oversight.”

My career started in newspapers; I know full well the reality of the lack of diversity in the media. I know the figures off by heart: British journalism is 94% white and 55% male (I remember when that study came out). I have spent the last few months researching the sort of publications I might like to write for. While the lifestyle magazines that I’ve been researching often if not always have brilliantly strong all-female editorial teams (and I am talking about both independent and mainstream titles here), it is still sad but worse, worrying, to see that when it comes to inclusivity of writers of colour, there simply isn’t any or if there is, it is minimal at best. This then trickles into the content too - where are the non-white interviewees? Where are their stories of how they started their businesses or created their beautiful homes or found their creative callings or raise their beautiful children? And so the myth of this beautiful lifestyle continues to flow, only accessible to a privileged few who have the means, the money, the background to do so.

When we make the effort to speak to people with different voices and different backgrounds, something special happens, even when we do not reference our difference continually.

We hear new stories, stories that share experiences you or I may not have ever felt before. For a moment, we may even see the world differently. We understand new perspectives and new ways of thinking.

We proceed, with a little more compassion.

These are the stories that are worth including, worth making space for. These are the stories that, personally, I find far more inspiring than stories of sameness.

These are the stories that add to the richness of the world, that help us empathise, understand, connect with one another.

If sameness breeds sameness, diversity breeds creativity.

I have scrolled through countless contributor lists in lifestyle publications where there are no writers of colour at all, no names that stand out like mine. I have ended up not pitching to these titles - not to make a point, but because these lists unsettle me, make me feel that my name in an email to an editor won’t stand a chance in the first place, even if it is subconsciously.

I was brought up being told I had to study and work three times harder than anyone else because of my Muslim name, because of being female, because of my Pakistani roots. And boy, did I work hard - hard enough to write for big newspapers, win awards for it and publish a book. And yet I carry this “three times harder” mantra inside me, all the time. I carry this. It cracks my heart to see that some magazines and blogs and podcasters and influencers can afford to simply not see how they let so many people like me down.

I am aware these might not be platforms that talk about politics and serious affairs; I know that. But one can write about pretty things and yet be purposeful. Each and every media platform - from a blog to a podcast to a publication, even a social media feed - has an opportunity to make a difference, no matter what subject or theme they pursue. They should strive. (I hasten to add, I have had encouraging conversations about just this with one editor who is ready and open to being more inclusive).

And so, in my striving to make things a little better, here are a few things that have been on my mind and four very simple ways to consciously make room for different voices from different people, with specific reference to this curated lifestyle world. Incidentally, I have thought long and hard before writing any of this, above or below.

If you like the notion of living with less, if you believe that it somehow helps you to live a better life, then perhaps my thoughts might lead you to conclude that living simply also means living consciously and making space to think of others, too.

Four ways to be more inclusive in the lifestyle niche of minimal, simple living:

1. INTERVIEW OUTSIDE YOUR CIRCLE

If you have your own website, magazine or podcast, please don’t just only ever interview your friends, or people that look or sound like them. Why not take the opportunity to stand out in your chosen platform? In journalism, we look for something new. Yet in blogs and podcasts, so much I am hearing and reading is so very familiar. From an editorial perspective, this could be considered unoriginal. Consider featuring new voices from people of different backgrounds whose stories perhaps we haven’t heard many times before. Why not give those voices the support and a platform to be known a little more, instead of choosing already well-established voices who don’t necessarily always need the publicity or the chance to talk at length about themselves? This is not meant to cause upset. I love hearing everyone’s stories and I’m grateful to have been interviewed for podcasts too. But let’s hear some new voices, not just the same ones. A mix of voices is good. A mix of voices is rich. Find those voices and support those who do it so well.

2. AMPLIFY MANY VOICES

Equally, don’t just support the one or two ethnic minority or black women you can think of because you either already know them or because they’re already prominent on social media. Rida put this powerfully in her podcast with Lucy Lucraft: “It isn’t enough to jump behind just the one person you know.” This happens all the time. Can you think bigger? Can you be kinder? Can you be more generous, more supportive towards and of others? Or must we still try three times harder to be noticed?

3. DIVERSIFY YOUR FEEDS AND READ

You might be wondering where to find these people and women of colour who have such stories and richness and an entirely new perspective on life in all its facets to share because of their origins and experiences. They’re not going to pop up in your recommended follows. You will have to do your own reading and do your own research. In the kindest way possible, I’m not here to provide a ready-made list of South Asian women or Muslim women or black women to help you get started. I’ve been asked this before, by no doubt well-meaning folks. But if I can find people like you, and make the effort to reach out personally (I do this; it is often the only way I can place my writing in front of people), then you can find people like me. Research. Read. Read. Read. Read the magazines you’ve never read before. Try here, here and here for starters.

4. BE FAIR. SEE THE WHOLE. GIVE GRACE.

Give everyone the same grace. By all means, go ahead and share this piece because it is a piece about diversity. I am immensely grateful to you for that, and I know and trust many of you will. But then share another piece simply because it’s beautifully written. Engage when we talk about race, yes. But then engage when we talk about our homes or our recipes or our children too. Engage when we’re simply being us. Don’t switch off or unfollow just because we don’t always talk about our identities all the time. Give the same space, the same balance, the same grace that you would to yourself.

FURTHER READING

Is Minimalism for Black People?

How to stand up for inclusion in design

Glossies so white: the data that reveals the problem with British magazine covers

Zine Queens: how women’s magazines found new life via indie publishing

Did you know you can still buy and download Postcards Home, my summer writing course? It’s available to purchase until the end of August, to print off or upload onto your device and take with you on holiday. For summer writing inspiration, read more about my summer writing course.



From the archives: Simple ways to be a better reader: nine tips to read in a more inspired way

While I’m away for the summer, I’m dipping back into some favourite pieces on Our Story Time. This is an edited version of a post that appeared in January 2019.

At the top of my to-do list: read more. And not just read more.  Read better . Simple ways to be a better reader: nine tips to read in a more inspired way

At the top of my to-do list: read more. And not just read more. Read better.

Read to be inspired. Read for escape and imagination, yes, but also read in order to grow as a writer myself. Read to pick apart sentences and wonder how did she do that? when I come across a passage by a writer that blows me away. Read to make notes on the imagery I fall in love with. Read to remember. Read to challenge myself, to stretch my boundaries of language and metaphor. Read to go beyond myself. Read, not to think glumly: oh, but I could never write like this but instead to wonder: oh, but how can I write like this? What can I do better in my own work to meet this sort of greatness?

Read actively, not passively.

In other words: read like a writer.

Writing is my craft in progress; I am constantly seeking out ways to better myself at it. And reading is one of the most important ways. You cannot call yourself a writer if you do not read. In my writing course, The Quiet Words, I dedicate time to exploring the art of reading with a writer’s eye and we uncover what it means to read actively, not passively, and also how to become that reader; how to read towards something. For I believe when you start to read better, when you start to lose yourself in the art of language, of expression, and you begin to understand the very way in which every single word has been chosen and shaped - then your own writing begins to sparkle too, even if it is without realising.

If reading more and reading better is on your to-do list too (and even if it is not!), here are nine simple ways to improve the way in which you read:

NINE SIMPLE WAYS TO BE A BETTER READER

1) Make notes

I am an annotator of books (that I own, I hasten to add - I would not scribble in a library or a friend’s copy!). The margins are filled with tiny stars marked in pencil signifying passages I find important in some way. Sentences which move me by their depth or their simplicity are underscored. Corners are turned down. I also keep a separate notebook too and sometimes, if I am so inclined, I then make very brief notes separately. These notes are simple. For instance: “p62 - sky description” or “p181: see how this dialogue works!” On occasion I might even transcribe sentences - the ones I might have underscored in my copy itself - and in this way, I will end up with my highlights of a book surmised in four or five favourite quotes. I don’t consider this an academic approach; nor is it as time-consuming as it might sound (you might also simply do this on your phone if it made more sense to you). I don’t do it all the time, but keeping notes means I have a place to remember the things I want to remember. It keeps me an engaged, active sort of reader, not a passive one.

2) Read closely

Every now and again, look back over your annotations and notes and ask yourself why you underscored that particular sentence or starred that description. Unpick it. Ask yourself what works; what makes it memorable? What moves you the most? Why do you like it? What is it in the imagery, for instance, that stands out? How close do the words bring you into that moment? And how is that closeness achieved? These questions are never-ending. It’s also very addictive to unpick like this. It’s learning from between the lines.

3) Look up words you don’t know

It’s okay to not know all the words that exist in all the pages in the world! I look up words all the time as I read (the other day I had to look up “impel” and “particulate” from the same page). There’s no shame in looking something up and I’m not too proud to turn to a dictionary in order to broaden my vocabulary, so that I may absorb more words and find better ways to express myself. After all, the better we may express ourselves, the less frustrated we become. The more words we have at our fingertips, the more scope there is for understanding of ourselves and of each other. And with that, there is the hope there may be more compassion too.

4) Read the sort of writing you’d like to write yourself

Reading sets your aspirations. Read the work of the sort of writer you’d like to be. If you want to write a memoir, read memoirs. If you want to write poetry, read poetry. If you want to write a thriller, read thrillers. And this goes beyond books too; want to write a first-person blog? Spend a while with your favourite bloggers posts and ask yourself what it is about the way they write that draws you close. Fancy trying your hand freelancing for a favourite magazine? Devour said magazine, at length. Learn from those who are already creating their work and try to understand the way they work too.

5) Read the sort of writing you’d never ordinarily read either

Challenge yourself. So you’d never read short stories, you say? Give Alice Munro a try (or maybe even my collection too). Find memoirs boring? Try this and find yourself surprised. A decade ago, I hardly ever read non-fiction; now, it’s often what I turn to most. More than that - read as many perspectives as you can. Read authors from different backgrounds with different names and different stories to tell, because the chances are in their stories, you will spy a piece of your heart too. A lot of authors simply don’t get a look in when it comes to big reviews and recommendations but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to be read. Like introverts, the quietest of books are often the ones that matter and mean the most.

6) Re-read your favourites

Writer’s block? While away an afternoon re-reading your favourite author for the umpteenth time. The next morning, when you sit down to write, the words will flow a little more as if they were just on the tip of your tongue waiting for you to taste them first.

7) Read out loud

And hear the rhythm as words lace into each other. Feel it. Words were made to be heard. And as you read - ask yourself: does it flow? If not, ask yourself why. What word does your tongue stumble over? What words would you change?

8) Make more time to read

Note to self: less scrolling, more reading.

9) do it for the love of it

We may unpick, we may note, we may set ourselves deadlines and goals as we read. But it must all come from a place of love too, for it is all too easy for a pastime to turn into a chore and when that happens, something is lost. Whenever the act of reading begins to feel like a a must-do, a should-do or a tick-off-a-list, then simply set that particular book aside. Leave it awhile or pick up something new to read to freshen up what is in front of your eyes. Reading is precious; so is your time. Don’t waste either on something that doesn’t inspire you entirely.

Footnotes

How to Read More: authors share how they read more. The consensus? Track your reads and keep up the momentum.

See also: The Penguin Reading Challenge and The Goodreads Reading Challenge

I’ve been tidying up, as usual, but my books stopped me in my tracks. Here’s an essay on the heartbreaking difficulty of letting go of books and a non-minimalist view on books.

Did you know you can still buy and download Postcards Home, my summer writing course? It’s available to purchase until the end of August, to print off or upload onto your device and take with you on holiday. For summer writing inspiration, read more about my summer writing course.

A subdued love letter to the summer

Summertime - a subdued love letter. More on my blog Our Story Time ourstorytime.co.uk

We’ve been off-school for a month already.

I had been waiting for this time, counting down to it through end-of-term-this and end-of-term-that. Little stars marked the last day of term in my diary. I’ve been itching to play hooky, sneak on those vintage denim shorts, kick off my shoes.

But the start of the summer hit us hard like a hot storm. My smallest child fell unwell, seriously and suddenly. It is not yet something that I’m ready to write about and I doubt that I’ll recount the details anyway. But when we finally came home from hospital, that week of June when the skies were smokey grey and it rained and rained and rained for days, all I wanted to do was escape. (I think I will forever now be a little bit afraid of June, after what happened to us. After what it did to us). All I wanted to do was take us all some place far away and stay there all summer long.

By the time you read this, we will have gone*. It is something we all need. There is much amiss with the world. It is not perfect. But my family is safe. We turn together on our small axis every day. This is all that matters.

This time has not been easy. But I'm learning to go with the flow. After moments that edged on darkness, I am grateful that we even have a flow. I am grateful for the light that falls through the trees. If I could, I would capture this light in a snow globe, only one filled with sunbeams instead of snowflakes. I would shake that globe every day.

I used to dislike summer greatly. I hated those tube journeys into work, hated coming home crumpled and parched. But it's different now. We have spent four weeks resting, recovering (and I’m glad to say it’s likely to be a full recovery). We have stepped in and out of the garden, ventured to the park, to the woods, and visited our friends. Though there was much I may have given up from my life before children, it occurs to me more and more lately that this is not an altogether bad choice to have made. With that, I leave you as we take some time to be us. I am as ever deeply grateful for those of you who stop by and read my words and support Our Story Time.

*While I’m away, I will be resharing some of my favourite pieces from my blog archive that perhaps, if you’re new to Our Story Time, you might have missed. And if you’re a beloved loyal reader, you might enjoy dipping back in.

Did you know you can still buy and download Postcards Home, my summer writing course? It’s available to purchase until the end of August, to print off or upload onto your device and take with you on holiday. For summer writing inspiration, read more about my summer writing course.