Next week sees the publication of a student’s first-hand account of surviving physical and racial abuse to discover a sense of self-worth thanks to artist, poet and civil rights activist Gil Scott-Heron. Letters to Gil: A Memoir (2021, William Collins) by St Catharine’s PhD student Malik Al Nasir will be released on 2 September as a tribute to the kindness and support shown by his late mentor.
Born in Liverpool, Malik was taken into care at the age of nine after his seafaring father became paralysed. Traumatised by physical abuse and racism in the care system throughout his adolescence, he emerged semi-literate and penniless at 18 years old, with no connections or sense of where he was going – until a chance meeting with Gil Scott-Heron turned everything around.
Malik comments, “When writing Letters to Gil, it was important to be frank both about how physical abuse and institutional racism can debilitate a child, and how meeting Gil turned my life around. His mentoring, creativity, self-expression and solidarity has helped me uncover and move towards realising my full potential against the odds.”
In the foreword, Lemn Sissay OBE, explains:
"In Letters to Gil, I see Malik emerge from under the wing of Gil Scott-Heron. And I think to myself, How did he do it? This miraculous man, one of us, this complex and beautiful hero."
Malik joined St Catharine’s in 2020 to study a PhD in History, based upon his own genealogical research into his family connections back through Caribbean enslavement. He adds:
“It has been undoubtedly a challenge managing my PhD research alongside the launch of this memoir, but I am passionate about both projects and they are deeply entwined after all, given the different ways that Gil nurtured my artistic and academic potential. I am honoured to be organising a spoken word event in College with the MCR Committee as part of Black History Month in October, in recognition of the pivotal role this art form has played in my life and journey to Cambridge.”