Indigo glow

ya prize 2018

On the first day of March, the shortlist for The Bookseller YA Prize was announced. It’s World Book Week this week – originally a day, but sort of expanded – which means that many children’s and YA writers are shuttling between schools, being sliced at by the wind and tripped up by the ice. Consequently, I missed the original announcement. I’ve come to learn that all schools are constructed from mobile signal-proof materials and no tweet will ever make it in, or out.

As I slowly defrosted over the bus from Ham to Richmond, I checked my phone.

Indigo Donut has been shortlisted for this year’s prize along side last year’s fellow shortlistee, Alex Wheatle and many wonderful authors. (I actually already have five of those books and the rest were on my to-buy list). There was also a very well-deserved special award for Stripes publishers for the A Change Is Gonna Come anthology.

Last year, my debut YA book Orangeboy won the prize. I was stunned, grinning and downright overjoyed. I also hoped that it would push the door open even wider for stories written by and about young men and women of colour. Marlon’s story is just one of thousands. However, with less than ten books by UK YA writers of colour being published in the UK this year, the door feels a little stuck. I am constantly reminding young people that their voices are important. The fact that the English exam curriculum does not celebrate a diversity of voices should not make young people think that they don’t matter. They do. They are funny and creative and full of their own stories.

Orangeboy shouted. Indigo Donut is quieter. It is about enduring love, belonging, trust and grief. The characters have families with roots around the world, just like the people I see every day. ‘Race’ isn’t explicit, but there will be readers who completely get the moments when who you are makes a difference from the exoticism projected on to mixed heritage people to the humour that young Muslim people may use to negotiate a sometimes hostile world. Though, most of all, it is about being a Londoner.

I am startled and downright pleased to be on a shortlist that includes Philip Pullman and Patrick Ness, writers that I read long before I had a hope of being published. But once more I hope that Alex Wheatle and I and publishers like Stripes can help push that door open even more.

 

 

Random trigger songs

It’s that moment when you have one ear on the radio and the other – well, it shouldn’t be on anything at all. You should be writing. IN SILENCE. Often, if asked to remember a song that reminds us of a specific moment or puts us in a certain mood, we can raid our memories and come up with something.

But what about those ones that take us completely by surprise? You hear the first few notes and you are thrown back to your childhood or a forgotten moment? You never knew that you remembered it? I use music a lot in my YA books – Blondie rules the soundtrack in Indigo Donut.

What are random trigger songs? These are mine.

Firstly, this. My Aunty Flo who lived above my foster mum took me to see this at the cinema. It must have been a re-show because I was only one when the film came out. I LOVED this scene. My primary school laid on a production of ‘Oliver’ – child abuse, prostitution and domestic violence, what’s not to like? My best friend, Lucy, was Nancy.  Me? I was the flower seller, of course.

 

This one – I have no idea why. I think it’s because my daughter was little and we put together a little mixtape and this was on there. Luckily, I have no cool to lose by singing along. (Just any friend who may be in close vicinity to witness it.) What became of 3 of a Kind?

 

When I was little, we spent summer holidays in Ceriana, near San Remo with my stepdad’s family. The first time I went, two English-speaking songs were big. One was Don McLean’s Vincent aka Starry, Starry Night. The other was this. It throws me back to wandering down La Strada stopping for ice cream at Antonia’s and eating watermelon and tomatoes and olive oil on San Remo beach.

 

Now over to the calypsonian, Lord Kitchener, known to anyone who has seen the news clip of the SS Empire Windrush docking in Harwich. I must admit, I had no idea he was on it until recently. I discovered him through my Aunty Baby in Arouca, in the mid-70s. I loved this. Though, to be honest, the casual mention of slapping his wife really does bump me. Oh, that golden era way back before women demanded equality.

 

And, finally. ‘Do I know where hell is? Hell is in ‘hello’.’ This. I can not remember a time before this existed. My mum had the double album. I think the film was long and either Clint Eastwood or Lee Marvin were in long johns. Still, rediscovering this is what You Tube was invented for.

What songs shape your stories?

20160205_095020I was asked to write a blog for World Book Day Teenfest, by coincidence on the day it was announced that Maurice White had died. I know some Earth Wind and Fire songs, but Marlon, in ‘Orangeboy’, is one of their biggest fans. So I wrote the blog about the music we inherit and the music pass on… (It is also a snapshot into hairstyles past.)

Check out the blog here.

What are your inheritance tracks?

From disco-y wetlook to virgin Brazilian

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In homage to Americanah’, a spot more hair business.  There was actually a sign in a local hairdresser advertising Virgin Brazilian hair.  We weren’t sure if the adjective was being applied to the donator or the hair itself.  I’m afraid I was too much of a coward to ask.

Anyway, it makes the days of wetlook and gericurl seem so much more innocent.

 

Hackney hood rat tells it like it is – but do I want to hear? Book review.

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I thought I’d struck gold with Robyn Travis’s ‘Prisoner to the Streets’, and in some ways, I had.  I’ve been researching for a late draft of the young adult novel I’m finishing and I wanted to get in to the mind of the protagonist.  My book is set in Hackney – I’ve lived there since 1997 and know the terrain well.  As I was doing the slightly lazy Amazon search thing, I found this book, an ‘ex-bad bwoy’ memoir set in these very streets.  Thanks, Amazon algorithms.  Just what I needed.

The author, Robyn Travis, promises ‘NO FRONTING. Just honesty’.  And to some extent, this is true.  Travis doesn’t try and make himself look good in this.

‘Prisoner’ starts with a chase – Travis and his mate, Darker, pursued through the streets by ‘Boi-dem’, the police.  Both boys are carrying guns.  He wonders how he gets himself into this – again.  We then head back to his early childhood on the borders of Hackney and Tottenham.  These time seem relatively happy in spite of extreme poverty, his father disappearing and apparently faking his own death and harassment from racists.  His mother toughens him and his older brother up by insisting they fight with anyone that wrongs them and ‘she would ‘dish out’ beatings like it was slavery times’.  Along with shoes and a belt called ‘johnny’, a curtain wire with a hook and eye was also a handy weapon of chastisement.  As Travis says, ‘Mum didn’t ramp when it comes to licks’.

Throughout the book, Travis talks about ‘the switch’, the blind anger that surrounds his violence, but rather frustrating for me, this feels like the only insight he has into his behaviour.  He and his brother are both eventually permanently excluded from school; his brother becomes a ‘dream chaser’ – a drug dealer – while Travis refuses that route.  At various times he tries different manual jobs to earn money, but always with the fierce allegiance to his friends.  He carries a knife and is stabbed and hospitalised.  He starts carrying a gun.  His mum is evicted and the vulnerable fifteen-year-old is rehoused in adult homeless hostels amongst drug addicts and those with serious mental health difficulties.  He sleeps with a gun under his pillow and people he knows are killed.  His mother marries a crack smoker.  His beloved grandmother dies from a heart attack shortly after Travis is involved in a knife fight by her house…

Yes.  It is a difficult read. Much of the tale supports the findings of some of the more sensitive and thoughtful gang journalists and commentators – these are not the organised gangs beloved of the sensational press.  These are loose and constantly changing allegiances of young men whose lives are shaped by ‘beefs’, ‘ride or die’, revenge and reputation.  Surprisingly quickly, life becomes cheap.

One touch I enjoyed was the occasional voices from other people.   Travis’s mother has a section, likewise a couple of primary school teachers.  The most emotional contribution is from the mother of a young man that Travis stabs.

I wanted more of this.  I am pretty liberal, but I spent so much time yelling at this book ‘ Take responsibility!’  (Best not do that in a crowded bus.)  ‘How can you complain that the police harass you when you behave that way?’  ‘Do you know what it’s like sitting in a bus with your young child, adrenalin revving because you think something’s going to kick off with the boys who’ve just got on?’  ‘Do you know how many London mothers are terrified that their sons are getting drawn into that crap or they’re going to get shot?’   There are no descriptions of the times he spent in a police cell.  What was the first time like – was a line crossed?  Or much acknowledgement of the people who tried to intervene – the school coach, the solicitor and maybe others who would have been constantly let down.

And what about other people trying to live their lives without all that random violence and aggression going on?  The people in Holly Street and London Fields, terrified of getting caught in the crossfire.  Last year, I was walking through London Fields early on a winter’s evening.  The woman walking in front of me stopped dead so quickly I almost slapped in to her back.  A group of young black guys on bikes were riding towards her.  They rode straight past – but just the possibility of them being local gang boys made her freeze solid.  In 2007, Stevens Nyembo-Ya-Muteba was stabbed to death outside his home in Holly Street after asking ‘gang’ members to quieten down.  Is that what it’s all about?

Travis is a father, son, brother, neighbour.  He has turned his life round and is trying to stop others following path.  But after reading 254 pages, I still didn’t understand Travis’s choices, or why it was so easy to go back to your room, change into your tracksuit, pick up your weapon and get ready to kill a man.

Prisoner to the Streets is published by The X Press http://www.prisonerofthestreets.com

From Lambeth Archives: Stories for one parent families

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I love archives.  I’ve recently been rummaging around archives in Hackney to write an updated history of Hoxton Hall.  In such a short time, my head was buzzing with the stories of Hoxton folk from the past.  Counterfeiters, asylum managers, workhouse attendants, fences and costermongers… a Sunday evening BBC series waiting to happen. This leaflet from Lambeth Archives also feels like a historical document, albeit much more recent.   There is the language; one parent families, single parent families, lone parent families – the adjective shifts.  I also smile, a little sadly, because Lambeth has also been portrayed as the ‘loony left’, a gift for any subeditor who fancied a little light alliteration.   I could imagine a leaflet like this being held up as the epitome of political correctness. But the thought that someone, somewhere wanted children to feel a connection to a book, to see a world that reflected their own, makes me feel rather warm.  I really like people who are willing to do that.  Seriously.  I really do.