Monday 23 September 2013

The Brixton Bard Interview: Part I

How DJ Yardman Irie Became Author Alex Wheatle

My novel, Ghost Town, is set in 1981. It begins on the day of the New Cross Fire and ends on the day of the Royal Wedding, spanning the time of the Brixton riots. The main part of story is located in Coventry, where violent clashes were taking place between skinhead and Asian youths. But Brixton and the events unfolding there play a small but crucial role.

I am therefore thrilled to introduce Alex Wheatle, author of East of Acre Lane and one of my inspirations when I was working on that part of the story.

Alex, you were living in Brixton at the time of the 1981 riots. Can you tell me a bit about who Alex Wheatle was back then, and what his experience of the riots was?

I spent most of my childhood in a children’s home in Surrey so when I moved to a social services unit in Brixton in 1977, it was a bit of a culture shock for me. I fell in love with reggae at that point and I reclaimed my identity but I couldn't believe the violence and threatening behaviour of the police! I was very much like any other young black teenager at that time - trying to find my way in the world, wanting to go to the best parties, trying to imitate the best reggae singers of the day.

From when I arrived in Brixton in 1977, the tension between the police and young blacks was mounting. I heard stories of police brutality all the time. The police brought in 'Operation Swamp' a new initiative on Stop and Search, in the early months of 1981.  Me and many friends of mine were sometimes stopped three or four times a day. I think it was the Friday (10th April) 1981 when I was shooting pool in a pub just off Brixton Hill. A young black guy came running in and he was alleging that another young black man had been stabbed to death by the police on the Front Line (Railton Road) 

The rumour that a police officer stabbed a young black man to death swept the whole of Brixton that Friday night. There was a call for action or for some kind of response. Everyone I knew went down to central Brixton knowing something or other would kick off. Many wanted confrontation. Central Brixton was packed with police and many young blacks on the Saturday morning (11th April) The tension slowly mounted throughout the morning.

Then, the police attempted to arrest a cab driver whose nickname was Wadada.  He was an innocent man but the police manhandled him. People started protesting and then, a man called Johnny Brixton, launched the first blow of the Uprising, by punching a police officer.  The battle started at that point with young black men like myself wanting to 'protect' the Front Line area of Brixton from the police.  I saw the first molotiv cocktails in mid afternoon...

How did that Alex Wheatle turn into Alex Wheatle the writer?

Following the 1981 Brixton Uprising, I served a prison term for resisting arrest, assaulting police officers, etc and during my sentence I was encouraged to read. I devoured authors like CLR JAMES, CHESTER HIMES, RALPH ELLISON, RICHARD WRIGHT.

When I finished my term, I became a DJ for a reggae sound system I had built with friends of mine. We called it Crucial Rocker and I was the MC/lyricist. My performances were terrible when I first began but when I found the discipline to write or work on my lyrics every day, I steadily improved. My DJ name was Yardman Irie and for the first time in my life people were commenting that I was actually good at something.

I continued my reading and it actually helped to widen my vocabulary which was useful to me when I sat down and wrote lyrics. I was also searching for books that reflected the lives of my friends and myself. I only came across the poetry of Linton Kwesi Johnson that spoke for me. At this time, I never had the dream of becoming a writer - instead I wanted to be a reggae star!

After many years, I decided that if I cannot find a book that I can relate to in terms of my own experience then I'd better write it myself. Brixton Rock was born in about 1995 when I first put biro to A4 lined paper. It was finally published in 1999 by BlackAmber Books following many rejections from other publishers and agencies. Wanting to tell the story of Brixton 1981 through a West Indian family and employing my own memories and experiences, I started work on EAST OF ACRE LANE in the fall of 1999.

You wrote East of Acre Lane twenty years on.  Why then? Was it hard, as a black writer dealing with a controversial subject, to find a publisher? Or was the time just right for that book?

In fact it was a good time to be a black author in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Not so good now because the industry seem to want Zadie clones who have just stepped out of Oxbridge. I believe there's room for every type of black writer in the UK, if only the industry allowed it.

The X-Press in the mid 1990s demonstrated that there was an audience for books written from black perspectives. Courttia Newland's The SCHOLAR had gained critical acclaim in 1997. Mainstream publishing was now looking at black writing to include in their lists, so when I delivered EAST OF ACRE LANE to my agent, there were 3 or 4 publishers who wanted to publish it. 

Where in Brixton Rock I reined in my 'Brixton dialogue' a touch, as I wasn't sure how it would be received, in EAST OF ACRE LANE I really went for it and I think because of that it gave it a raw authenticity that the critics loved.

It was a good time to publish a book in 2000/2001 about the Brixton of 1981 - about 20 years had passed since the Uprising and I believe there was an interest to hear the black perspective from that time rather that the perspective of the media, politicians, etc.

Music plays a massive part in East of Acre Lane. In fact, I believe you wrote some of the Yardman Irie lyrics at the time of the riots and revived them for the book. Tell me about the relationship between the book and its ‘soundtrack.’

I came from a sound system background. I built a sound with friends of mine and I was the MC. When I wrote lyrics back then, I always worked with music playing in the background - usually reggae. I always had a Brixton suitcase booming out classic reggae.

When I started writing novels I didn't change this approach. For example, the title EAST OF ACRE LANE came from me listening to Augustus Pablo's seminal album EAST OF THE RIVER NILE. I also wanted to give a nod to the people I hustled with, walked street with, partied with, played music with and so on - that's why I introduced the musical references. And in the back of the mind was the hope that if somebody was out there who wanted to adapt EAST OF ACRE LANE into a film script, the soundtrack was already there!!!

Thank you, Alex.  Fascinating to know where the names comes from, by the way. I can remember when I first came across the book, over ten years ago, I imagined the name was an echo of Steinbeck’s East of Eden.

Part 2 of the Brixton Bard interview – in which Alex Wheatle reflects on how things have changed since 1981, is coming soon.

Friday 6 September 2013

Up Close and Distant:

On writing about times and cultures not one’s own

A few years ago, I read Peter Ho Davies’wonderful novel, The Welsh Girl, set in North Wales during the Second World War. In the midst of a critical scene, the eponymous Welsh girl, under great duress and trying to stop someone doing something, says in Welsh, ‘nargois.’

Now, like Peter Ho Davies, I grew up with one Welsh-speaking parent, hearing Welsh around me but never learning to speak it properly. When I read the word ‘nargois,’ I could immediately hear the sound of the word in my mother’s voice. Phonetically, it was perfect. But something about it bothered me. I did some ferreting about and discovered three things.

First of all, the word we were both thinking about is not spelt ‘nargois’ but ‘nag oes.’ Secondly, it probably wasn’t the right word for the situation anyway. Welsh is a strange language, with no simple way of saying ‘no.’ You always have to say, “no, he hasn’t,” or “no, I don’t,” or whatever is appropriate in the context. In this case, what the Welsh Girl should have said was “Paid!” meaning ‘don’t!’ What she actually said was “No, I haven’t.”

The third thing I discovered was that Peter Ho Davies had written an article in the University of Michigan Department of English Language and Literature Alumni Newletter 2010, in which he talks about his response to a reader who wrote pointing out the error. It wasn’t the only minor error in the text to have come to light after publication, he says, but it was, “the one that really nags, the one that nibbles away at the book’s particular authority over Welshness.”

It was with Davies’ experience in mind that I set out to find someone with a Punjabi-speaking South Asian background to comment on the manuscript for my novel, Ghost Town. The book is set, in part, among the British Asian community in Coventry – something I have no obvious ‘authority’ to write about. I have even used fragments of Punjabi – a language I don’t speak at all.

As an indie author, I have no publisher to help me with editorial support. The integrity of my manuscript is entirely down to the decisions I make during its preparation for publication. It's up to me to find the right people to work with to ensure that the book is not spoilt by any embarrassing (or worse, offensive) errors or cultural misunderstandings.

I was fortunate that, earlier this year, I’d met Kristine Landon-Smith, through her work with Freedom from Torture. Landon-Smith was, until recently, co-director of Tamasha Theatre, a group  set up in 1989 to showcase Asian-influenced theatre. It was Tamasha that first brought Ayub Khan Din’s brilliant East is East to the stage. Landon-Smith put me in touch with artistic director and co-founder of Tamasha Theatre, Sudha Bhuchar, who agreed to read the manuscript.

So was it worth going that extra mile to get things right?  Absolutely! I am pleased to say, I’d made far fewer serious errors than I expected. The silliest, probably, was knowing that ‘beta’ and ‘beti’ were endearments for male and female respectively, but not realising that they meant, literally, ‘son’ and ‘daughter’ and were therefore entirely inappropriate between a husband and wife! Not catastrophic, maybe, but enough to spoil the scene’s authenticity.

Bhuchar also helped me add one or two vivid phrases – my favourite being, “Chak de Phate”, which means “raise the floorboards” – a rousing call used to get people dancing the Bhangra.

But most of all, she gave me confidence that I wasn’t being stupidly presumptuous to try and write about a culture not my own.

 An Author's Responsiblity

Just what is an author’s responsibility when it comes to writing about characters ‘distant’ from herself? I put the question to both Sudha Bhuchar and Peter Ho Davies.

“Authenticity implies a kind of straight jacket,” Bhuchar says. “It is more about making people uniquely themselves. I would say when a writer is from a background which is different to that or their characters, then it is their responsibility to get under the skin of those people, but also to check the nuances of speech, language, dialect and so on.”

Davies brought up a different point, in terms of authenticity of portraying historical events. For him, there are three strands to this – how ‘ethically charged’ a particular issue is, how historically distant, and how ‘fictionally distant’ – i.e. how many times it has been portrayed in the past.

“Getting something wrong, even accidentally, about the Holocaust, say, is an ethically charged issue,” says Davies. “On the other hand, at the other end of the scale, when I've written about historical figures like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, I've felt much freer, in part because they've already been so fictionalized as to pass from the territory of history into that of legend.

“All of which is to say that the factual burden on a piece of fiction has a lot to do with what it purports to represent. If, say, it's the first representation of some ‘real’ event the burden is different than if it's the tenth or hundredth (in which case it’s in dialogue not only with the original ‘reality’ but also with intervening versions of that reality).

“I've been using the movie Zero Dark Thirty as a short-hand example of this. Some of the criticism (and perhaps praise) it received, I'd argue, came its way because, as the first depiction of those events, it seems (temporarily) definitive. In ten years, when those events have been depicted several times over, our relation to the first movie might be different, I suspect.”

The question of historical and fictional distance was of particularly relevance to me. The events in Ghost Town happened over thirty years ago and  fall into two strands. The smaller element of the book takes place in Brixton. The Brixton riots have been written about many times – in both fiction and in non-fiction – from the Scarman Report to Alex Wheatle’s novel East of Acre Lane. The media revisits the riots and their causes on every major anniversary.

On the other hand, the main part of the book takes place in Coventry, against the background of violent clashes between skinhead and Asian youths. Little known outside Coventry, these events have been portrayed twice, to my knowledge: in Bob Eaton’s play, Three Minute Heroes, at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre in 2000, and in the radio play by Sukhbender Singh, Concrete Jungle, broadcast on the BBC Asian Network in 2011. For most of the people who read Ghost Town, this may well be the first version they encounter.

I only lived tangentially through those events. Much of what I know was gleaned from comparatively thin newspaper accounts – the rest I filled in from my imagination. Inevitably, not every detail will be historically accurate – nor would it necessarily be right to try and do so in a piece of fiction.

So what is the writer’s responsibility?

Do your research, yes. Check your facts, yes. But ultimately, find that core of truth within the facts and portray that truth as honestly and sensitively as you know how.