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Making literary history

ACHIEVEMENTS: Writer Alex Wheatle, author of children’s fi ction, has won plaudits for his work

FRESH FROM A well-earned trip to Jamaica, lauded author Alex Wheatle animatedly recalls his initial reaction to winning this year’s prestigious Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize for his gritty novel Crongton Knights, the second instalment in a planned trilogy.

“I came back to the UK jet-lagged, went to the award ceremony straight away and, my God, I won it,” he laughs.

He is the 50th writer to take home this award.

“It’s incredible, because if you look at the list of winners, they are all the giants of children’s literature, so for me to join that esteemed list is mind-blowing.

“Also, to be the first black winner – that just freaks me out. It’s overwhelming, it really is. It hasn’t sunk in yet. I just can’t believe it”.

Nadine White (NW): You’ve made the transition from adult fiction to young adult/children’s fiction due to what you described as a disillusionment with the literary establishment and its lack of support for black writers. How has your overall experience since compared?

Alex Wheatle (AW):It seems I’ve been accepted with open arms. Doors that were once closed have now been opened. In adult fiction, I felt like I was sidelined and it seemed as though the establishment thought that my work was only for black readers. On the other hand, when I attempted children’s fiction, everyone around me, including myself, felt my stories were for everybody. That came as relief as well, because writers like myself and Courttia [Newland] have been fighting against the marginalisation of black British writers for many years. So this prize, even though it is exhilarating, is also a relief because at last, my work is being seen as serious work – not just pigeonholing it as ‘ghetto’, but for everybody.

NW: You recently commented that you feel like black writers don’t get much exposure after being published? Can you explain this for me?

AW: It’s generally laziness of the mainstream media, who do not look out for these emerging talents, I think, and sometimes you just have to put it down to plain racism. We all see Zadie Smith, for example, and the fantastic things that she’s achieved. It seems that the mainstream media just focus on her and forget everybody else. There are some great black writers delivering right now, who do not get that exposure – I could name many – Irenosen Okojie, Yvette Edwards. I’d like to see more features, more interviews, so we can see them. There’s much more to black British writing than what’s written about, a lot more going on that is being missed out on.

NW: What doors you think winning this prize will open?

AW: Hopefully, me winning this award will be a wake-up call to other creatives out there who are producing great work and do not get recognised. I’d also like for these lazy journalists and literary editors to start looking further afield and promoting fantastic black writers and artists that are out there.

NW: You’ve spoken about white privilege, insofar as white writers generally receiving higher merit for their books about black characters than black writers, such as Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English. What do you think can be done to tackle this?

AW: It’s difficult, because if you look at the mainstream media and influential roles within the literary establishment, black people don’t fill those posts. What we are getting now is mostly white journalists creating the academy that decides what is good and what isn’t. Black people need to be in that mix and in more influential positions. Only then can we begin to dismantle white privilege. It’s like the Hollywood Oscars situation, where there’s not enough black people on the voting panel and the outcome was #OscarsSoWhite. BRITS is in the same position and even the MOBOs are going the same way, I fear. What’s important for us isn’t being recognised at the moment, but we should be proud of what we’ve achieved as a people and the work that we produce.

NW: You were appointed MBE in 2008. Given the history of Empire and your socio-political awareness, why did you accept?

AW: It’s a fair question and I’ve been criticised for it in the past. Growing up in the [children’s] home, I was nothing – treated as nothing and felt worthless. Having come out of that, for someone to say I’ve done something good, I’ve made something of myself, made me feel proud. I’ve received that because somebody out there who I cannot even name acknowledged me and recognised me. Not just for writing, but going into schools, prisons, institutions and trying to encourage other people to make something of their lives. In the end, I felt the good of it outweighed the bad. Don’t get me wrong, I have problems with the word ‘empire’. If you read my work, you’ll see that I am a socialist at heart who’s very much for supporting black people and their struggles. I don’t have to validate myself more than that – it’s all there. I stood up to the police in 1981 and did jail time for that – standing up for what I thought was right. People don’t have to agree, but don’t attack me for that, y’know? At least consider the work I’ve done.

NW: What are you currently working on?

AW: Earlier this year, I worked with Steve McQueen and others on this BBC drama series, which should be aired in the next two years. That was such a learning experience with me, working with such incredible writers. I’m going to keep doing what I do, writing my stories, trying to keep it anchored to the working class struggles, because that’s what I am about.

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