A quiet but powerful intensity inhabits Alex Wheatle which is not apparent in his stature. This author of six novels is very passionate about his beliefs; his writing; his books; almost as though they were, children.
‘Black History Month’, that annual necessary evil, has recently come to a close in the UK and Alex has been busy across south London giving a series of talks around his work in community halls and libraries. He talks with and counsels young people in prisons and youth offending institutions; he visits schools speaking to students – all the activity which you might associate with ardent politically minded activists. I ask him if he would describe himself as such. “I don’t know what that really means to be honest, does that mean walking on the street with a placard or what?” Pushing him further he answers, “The only march I’ve ever been on was the probably the Deptford Fire March back in February 1981 (and the slogan) ‘Ten dead nothing said’, I remember that.”
Alex is very scathing of those who may try to pigeonhole him, or those who try to tell him what he should be writing and the way in which his experiences should be written. He is suspicious of any political agenda and won’t be bullied onto any bandwagon. As he speaks he draws lines on the table with a forefinger as if to underline his stance. “I don’t like the word political. Some people call me a political writer, but I don’t like that word ’cause it insinuates that you are not being wholly truthful. My activism shows itself in my work ’cause I choose to write about the experiences that I’ve had the experiences of the friends that I had and I put it down on paper.
Some people think that I am ghettoising, but to me it was a reality. That was how I lived my life, that’s how my friends lived their life, that’s how we survived, that is our story. So now when I come across academics, where they are telling me ‘can’t you be more positive’, I say to them, well this is my story, how dare you tell me that I cannot write about this. So if I’m an activist in any way it’s about black working class writing, stories being allowed to be read, or at least given the credit that I think it deserves. Somebody in the ghetto deserves this, or to be told that this story is worth as much as somebody’s in the shires. I’m not writing about cosy multicultural society ’cause I didn’t see that, I still don’t see it. I’m not gonna be a Zadie Smith, I’m not gonna nice-up everything and make everything look rosy ’cause it’s not rosy in my opinion.”
I suggest at this point that black writing is stratified and that maybe certain types of ‘black’ writing are more intellectualised than others. “Yes, yes some are more accepted than not. I don’t mind what she’s doing, Zadie Smith, I very much respect her work, but the reason why she’s mainstream and I’m not is because she chooses to paint a picture of multicultural society that is pleasant and nice. Me, I’m the opposite of that I’m digging up issues that maybe middle-class England would be very uncomfortable with”.
Isn’t he being a bit unfair about Zadie Smith, after all what she chooses to write about forms part of her own experiences too, surely? “I really don’t know her experience. I mean I know that she was raised in Willesden (north London) and I know that she went to Cambridge I don’t know if that influenced her in any way. I know that she cites authors like E. M. Forster. Me I’m citing authors like Eldridge Cleaver, they’re the people who inspired me”..
Alex begins to take us back to his earlier days in the sound-system, dejay-ing culture of African Caribbean communities, where a generation finding themselves finally settling in the UK inspire the Lover’s Rock genre of reggae music, something which was quite unique to Britain. “I’m inspired by the DJ culture, sound system culture. The act of seeing something on the street during the week and then you write a lyric about it. Maybe that something on the street was a young girl being kicked out of her house by her parents because she got pregnant; or police beating up black youth on the street, it could be anything. Something that I witness and observe on the street I’m taking that to the microphone to the dance-hall on a Saturday night and I’m making lyrics about it that is my approach.
So I come from the old DJ culture you can take that back to the early 1970s with U-Roy, you can take that back to the early 1950’s with Sir Coxson sound system and then the griots in Kingston, Jamaica. My father tells me that when he was a boy he would have story tellers that would go from village to village and they would interpret bible stories. They would say what’s happening in the village ten miles away, make up entertaining stories around the camp fire as everyone’s eating fish. So, really I see myself as a modern version of that, telling stories for our people about our people. That’s not to say that it should not be consumed by everybody else ’cause to me there’s still universal themes and this is where I have my trouble with the so called academics who believe that because I’m writing about something that’s going on in Brixton or wherever, they don’t see that as universal, but they see Zadie Smith as universal. So I’m not against her, I’m against the people who put us in these boxes.
East of Acre Lane; The Seven Sisters; Brixton Rock are just some of the books Alex has written. Of his latest, Island Song, he is very passionate. Does he have favourites as one may guiltily have favourite children I wonder? Is he more passionate about Island Song than say Brixton Rock?
“I wouldn’t say more passionate. I mean whatever is your last work, that is what you are most passionate about and I feel passionate about Island Song because I believe that’s my parent’s generations’ story. I believe it’s a story that should be told more especially to our children…my children. When my daughter came to ask me “dad what did your parents do, how did they survive this an’ that’ I didn’t really know – I mean I knew a little bit, but not as much as I felt I should have known. So I made it my duty to find out more.”
Asked if some of the problems associated with young people today extend from that not knowing about their heritage, Alex responds, “Yes, definitely especially with that young generation. I go into schools now and I ask the students ‘what do you know about Jamaica; what do you know about your grandmother’s side?’ and there’s not much hands going up. We have to know where we came from to understand ourselves now especially children. They have to be rooted, just like I was finding that root when I came to Brixton. You have to find some kind of belonging to say ‘hey I’m somebody; I’m someone that I can make it big because of this history that I have and I share’. So that’s what I tried to do with Island Song I was trying to root that generation, even though I’d like everyone to read it. It is truly aimed at the third generation coming up now to say this is where you are from, you’re not from drug cartels in Jamaica, shooting guns or whatever you’re from a hard working Christian people.”
With a melting pot of differing and a mixing of peoples – particularly in inner cities, it is difficult to say whether or not some of the problems facing youngsters today are about their parental origins, is this so really important that young people, third and fourth British-born generation, ‘know where they come from’? Are we not stepping into that role of trying to irrationally define that which should need no definition?
Many black people have been in the situation where they are asked by new colleagues, new neighbours; new environments with new people, ‘So, where do you come from?’ Black person answers, ‘Crouch End, north London’. The response is nervous laughter. ‘No, sorry,’ they say, ‘…where do you really come from?’ Alex makes his point.
“They (young people) need to be rooted in some kind of history. I mean everyone else does it, the Indians do it, the Jews do it and I applaud that – why not? Why not feel proud of your history and your roots? We have a generation coming up and not many of them know. So I just want to do my little part with Island Song to say ‘hey if you want to know about Jamaican life in the 40’s and 50’s, what it was like for your grandparents, your great grandparents, this book might give you a bit of an insight’. I’m just recording tales from my parent’s generation. What we can do is to bridge that gap with the new generation coming up. It will never be as good as my mother sitting in a chair and talking to my children about her experiences, it can’t be that but, me I’m a writer so I can write a book and maybe others can read that book and maybe their children can read that book so there’s a connection there.”
The publishing industry has changed dramatically over the last decade. Boy wonder wizardry has cast it’s spell upon book publishers who are desperately seeking the next writer that will cast some kind of magic across a Potter-starved demographic which will buy millions of books, see conglomerates fighting over film rights with a view to sell pyjamas for eight-year-olds in Marks & Spencer. An ordinary, but committed writer wanting to get their book published must be living a purgatory hell.
“It’s difficult, very difficult.” Alex lamented, “I wrote the first draft of Brixton Rock in 1995 written very roughly with A4 notepad paper with a biro! I was so naive at the time. I didn’t know anything about publishing I just thought it was brilliant and someone would publish it. I took it for granted that someone was going to come along and say ‘Alex this is a fantastic piece of work we’re gonna publish it and you’re gonna be a millionaire!’ I really thought that. If I really knew how difficult it was I wonder even now if I would have bothered, it was so difficult.”
He continues giving his insight into the industry. “Maybe in the late 90’s, even a few years ago, an editor of any publishing house could champion something a manuscript that he has read and he could go to an acquisition meeting and say, (Alex thumps his fist on the table) ‘I want this, I think it’s brilliant’ and the rest of the people at the table would say, ‘Okay we trust your judgement, you sign this author up, you nurture him and you go ahead and publish the author.’
Now press forward to 2007, 2008 to major publishing companies now, that editor cannot bang his fist on the table and say ‘I want this author I want to publish him’ now he’s got to fight with the marketing guy, he’s got to fight with the publicity guy, he’s got fight with whatever connection they have with the Richard and Judy show. Someone would always be asking, ‘…but would this book be on Richard and Judy would it sell one-hundred-thousand copies?” So even though the editor is saying, , ‘I want this…I want this…I believe in this’ there’re others saying ‘but, but, but, but…’ So he cannot publish that author unless he has the say so of the committee around him and that’s how publishing is going now.” Well, how do authors get themselves published in such an environment?
Alex advises people with the following. “You’re more likely to be published by a small publisher now. With the major publishers, okay you’d get the likes of Zadie Smith being successful, Monica Ali, writers like that who write about a multicultural world, but it’s very, very few.” Hmm…I think, but these writers are doing well, they are being published as writers who are not white, does this not show that there are areas in which to be encouraged by? Alex chuckles, “Let’s not be distracted by their success because, there’re many, many others who’re submitting very good work and they’re being rejected. I think the way to get round that is with the smaller publishers for instance my next book (The Dirty South) is going to be published by Serpent’s Tail a relatively small publisher. I think that’s the way to go ahead, or even self-publish, it’s getting cheaper and cheaper.” The self-publishing bit pricks my ear. The Internet is becoming a beast (any crack-pot can publish anything on the Internet), but one which can be harnessed to one’s own bidding at times. Could it help a lowly author I ask him? “Yes definitely, there is that future there where you’ll see e-book publishing on the Internet that is an avenue opening up that I know the major publishing houses are looking at.”
But what Alex begins to discuss now is what is at the heart of the rot in the industry – at least for black writers. “I think what’s really got to change though is we cannot just become writers as a people we need to want become editors, we need to want to become publicity people in publishing houses, we need to be all those things in publishing houses. When I left Harper Collins, they published two of my books; East of Acre Lane and Seven Sisters. When I was with them I would go to their fanciful offices in Hammersmith and there was not a black face in sight. So that is the problem. We have very, very few (black) editors. I think there’s one at Random House, that’s the only black editor I know at a major publishing house, the only one. As far as I know there are no black literary agents at all in the UK to my knowledge, I mean there could be a person working away in her little office somewhere, but I don’t know of that person so we need to address that.”
So what is Alex saying then, that we need people in positions of power to be able to make decisions, to say Alex Wheatle should be published? “Or so and so, the young author who lives wherever should have more opportunity.” He goes back to the idea of academia and its attempt at literary stratification. “What’s happening now is that editors are looking at some submissions by black writers and they have this narrow way of thinking that saying, ‘oh, only black people will read that and so we cannot get this book on to the Richard and Judy show we cannot get that in the major book promotions that we have in shops now; we cannot get that into W.H. Smiths.
Because it’s for black people it’s not gonna make us the money we require so even though it’s good writing we gonna chill that’ and that’s what’s happening too much now.” He confirms that publishers are looking for instant success, like a J.K. Rowling and a boy who wields a magic wand? “Yeah, publishers work very much like sheep. If something’s successful they’ll all try to rush to copy it. That doesn’t mean that aspiring writers shouldn’t be original, because sometimes you get quirks in the industry where one book all of a sudden will sell thousands upon thousands and take everyone by surprise, there’s still an opportunity for having that. But we still need to encourage more black people to get into reading to get into publishing houses and to be interested in the whole industry.”