It all started with a postcard: “Think you know British Lit? Think Again” so read a black-and-white photograph of a pensive bespectacled young man. A private conversation began with that picture. What do I really know about British Literature? And where is the black voice(s) in that narrative?
When Courttia Newland (www.courttianewland.com) was invited to Georgetown University to participate in the UK writer-in-residence program a few years ago, he’d authored of six novels, a short story collection, articles for magazines, and written for television and stage. After some research, it became clear that Newland is a star in the ever-growing constellation of black British writers. This writer isn’t at all like what one might imagine a black British writer to be. There’s a Caribbean cadence to his British accent and his gait has the swagger of an MC who just went platinum.
Music for the Off-Key, a short story collection, is Mr. Newland’s most recent book. Kevin Le Gendre, a book reviewer for The Independent, a popular newspaper in London writes “while black characters are at the heart of each story, they are not confined to “standard” black contexts.”
Mr. Newland’s current project is co-editing an anthology titled Tell Tales Volume 4: The Global Village (www.telltales.co.uk/)
I met Newland at a reading on the campus of Howard University; He was invited to speak to my class about his work and that of several others across the Black Atlantic. Since then, he and I have maintained a regular correspondence. When Newland returned home [London] he got married to his Sharmila Chauhan, also a writer, and their son, Senenti, soon followed.
What follows is an excerpt of a larger conversation Newland and I had about his life and the political consequences of being a Black writer in Britain.
Courttia Newland: I just want to say something about the whole black British cultural thing. We’re always a little hidden as a culture. If you watch The Wire, Idris Elba, a main actor in the first few series is black British. Also the actor in Spike Lee’s film Inside Man, performing beside Denzel Washington, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Melanie Brown (aka Scary Spice) of the Spice Girls.
We’re there. People don’t really know what it means to observe a Black British person. We’re quite diverse.
Q: Can you tell me a bit about what your initial reception to your visit at Georgetown and Howard Universites?
CN: I’d have to say every time I’ve been to the U.S., I found it brilliant…I [went] to a U.S. high school [Duke Ellington School of the Arts] talking about English slang, black British slang, trading words back and forth, and they were excited.. I read stories about working class black Britains and they connected. It’s amazing to me.
Q: What was it like growing up in London in the 1980s?
CN: By the mid-1980s, I grew up inner city London, Shepherd’s Bush, West London, where the BBC buildings are. W12’s the postal code. I was born in Hammersmith, West London. My mum moved me to a suburb, Uxbridge, which was predominately white. Then we moved back to Shepherd’s Bush when I was around 8 or 9. I loved growing up there; I spent my teenage years living in Shepherd’s Bush.
It was a really happy time. I lived through the Golden Age of hip hop. It was an amazing time. It was obviously a different experience than being in New York. It wasn’t that concentrated. But I remember when Eric B and Rakim first came out. And a lot of people came to London. A Tribe called Quest. Public Enemy.
Q: In your younger years you visited Barbados where your mother’s side is from. They called you “British” and you said, “No, I’m not.” Tell me a bit about how you define your identity?
CN: It’s a strange thing. In the 70s and 80s there were no black British. I was Afro-Caribbean. I always called myself West Indian or Caribbean. It was only going to Barbados where my mum is from that open my eyes. This experience is shared by a lot of black British people. When you visit the West Indies they don’t see you as West Indian at all. There was the shock of, wow. . . I’m actually not West Indian. So who am I? I think people are still grappling with that. Though I have to say, not all of us in Britain are from the Caribbean. Some are African, European, South American, etc.
Q: Why do you believe many of us have heard of Zadie Smith but not necessarily you?
CN: The reason you hear about Zadie is largely because of promotion. And partly, because, in the publishing industry there’s only one black editor that I know of. People who are published are mainly handpicked from the big universities, Oxford and Cambridge … They are deemed to speak to “other” people and they’re pushed for that ability.
Q: So they are viewed as “cross over”?
CN: Absolutely. We have a black fiction section in London but Zadie is never featured in that section because she won’t talk about being black in that way. It’s better if you don’t talk about race over here. Things are different. They say we don’t see color in England, which is rubbish. England has a very difficult time dealing with its colonial past. Not to say, the States doesn’t have its problems but at least in the States you will say, this has happened. If you mention race or the like in the UK, you will be looked at as a troublemaker.
Q: What are some ways that American readers and art lovers can discover your work and the work of your peers?
CN: It’s a weird time for black British writers in this country. In some ways, more of us are being published. But, it has a more commercial slant. Mid-1990s, it was in fashion so publishing houses were publishing a lot of writers. Of that wave of writers that came out in the mid-1990s there’s maybe two of us still getting published. It’s hard to follow writers when they stop at book two.
I can give you a few names to look up, Alex Wheatle, Stephen Thompson, Leone Ross. A new writer, Gemma Weekes (her book is set in Brooklyn and London) whole genre thing. Some people make a difference between literary fiction and popular fiction; I think it’s all valid as long as it’s good.
Abdul Ali is the editor of Words Matter. He resides in Washington, D.C.