The Brixton Bard: An Interview with Alex Wheatle

by Farzana Rahman

Alex Wheatle’s first book, Brixton Rock (Black Amber, 1999) heralded the arrival of a sublime black British writing talent. His novels explore the themes of racism, poverty, youth unemployment and discrimination with confidence and nuance. His most recent novel, Brenton Brown, was published by Arcadia in 2011.

As well as his critically acclaimed books, Alex works tirelessly in taking a message of inspiration and relatable experience to disaffected young people up and down the UK. His involvement in mentoring young prisoners, in developing and encouraging their confidence and writing skills, has already culminated in the publication of DD Armstrong’s Lynch’s Road (Smash and Grab, 2012).

Farzana Rahman asked Alex to discuss some of his thoughts on ‘black British writing’ and whether he thought an ‘accessible’ canon of black British writing exists.

What are your views on the existence of an 'accessible' canon of Black British writing? Can we identify what 'black British writing' is? Is it an extension of what we generally understand to be 'diaspora' writing, or something which is unique to the modern - post-1950s - British immigrant experience?

To me black British writing shines a light on the many experiences of first, second, third and fourth generational ethnic lives in the UK. When I was first published in 1999, I thought I would see a wave of 'our' experiences hit the bookshelves to follow me and the likes of Courttia Newland, Andrea Levy, Stephen Thompson et al.  But it didn't quite happen that way.

Instead, editors now in the UK, seem to want to publish the great African, Caribbean, Asian novel rather than encourage authentic voices commentating on what's happening in diverse communities in the UK.  If you look at the success of Nadifa Mohamed, Taiye Selasie, Noviolet Bulawayo and many others, this seems to prove the point. The only 'established' writer of colour who writes about race and what's happening in the UK, is Zadie Smith.

So, although you could argue that black British writing has progressed, I would counter and say that the themes and stories on offer have narrowed with very little scope to be inclusive of what's happening with diverse communities in the UK. I challenge anyone to go into a Waterstone’s bookstore and count how many novels are written by black or Asian British novelists about contemporary Britain.

Even Andrea Levy had to write a historical novel, Small Island, to finally get recognition for her work. Her previous novels about West Indian families growing up in a racist UK in the 1970s were largely ignored and I wonder if it was her use of a white, female protagonist in Small Island, where Andrea's publishers said to themselves – ‘Ahhh, we can market this!’

I don't believe that we should set parameters to define a black British canon. There is no reason why we shouldn't feel free to write about any kind of issue affecting us all.  And we should fill the crime shelves, humour, biography, sci-fi, horror as well as literary. Editors should look further afield than Oxbridge for the next great black writing talent. In a strange way, with Zadie Smith's success, it harmed the development of black writing in the UK because editors, wanting to duplicate Zadie's success, only had eyes for Oxbridge to see what would emerge from there.

Do you think it is (a) important and (b) easy to identify through black British writing the experiences of immigrants and then the experiences of their children and grandchildren? 

I think there is more scope to develop a narrative that juxtaposes the immigrant experience and those of their children/grandchildren, particularly immigrants from Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, etc.  When I visit bookshops I fail to find these narratives.

In order to understand what black British writing is, is it both important and necessary to differentiate writing which is produced by writers of black origin and writing which looks at the ‘black experience’ but may not be produced by writers of black origin?

For me, black British writing is a writer who chooses to write about British life from the perspective of black people. It doesn't matter the colour of the writer, as long as they are informed on the subject.

The US has a pretty strong canon of black British writing, and it's also interesting that at the forefront of this canon are 3 women: Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Maya Angelou, however is the tendency to look towards the US unhelpful in establishing a modern, reflexive canon of black British writing?

I really don't believe in entrenching canons of any sort because all that does is make certain books elitist that creative writing tutors regurgitate again and again decade after decade, neglecting other novels that are just as good and if not better.

Do we as black British writers have a ‘duty’ to write about the black experience – or should we write whatever we want and perhaps awareness of race and ethnicity informs those fictional narratives as appropriate?

No, any black writer does not have a duty to write about the black experience/perspective.  White writers don't have this duty so why do we have to have it?  I choose to write from black perspectives because you hardly find them on offer but that is my choice.  However, I would criticise black writers if they didn't have any black characters within a contemporary novel if they were say, writing about any major city in the UK. That would be denial.