Books: West Indies meets west London

Black British writer Courttia Newland tells Kevin Le Gendre why he doesn't mind being given the `Brit Lit' label
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The Independent Culture
The party ran until five in the morning. Admittedly, the hip-hop dipped a little past the midnight hour but long after the guests had left the launch of Society Within, Courttia Newland's new book, the 26-year- old author was still enjoying champagne and saltfish fritters at the Post Office Theatre.

It's a beautiful venue with a high ceiling and abstract paintings on the walls, just off Ladbroke Grove, the epitome of west London hippydelia. More importantly for Newland, it's only a short walk from his home.

Things were different the night before, though. The west Londoner was reading in the West End on the much-hyped Art Throb tour, a media-buzzed bandwagon that rolled some of our "hottest" post-Irvine Welsh writers around clubland UK.

"It's the whole thing of Brit Lit which everybody's trying to promote now," says Newland in a measured, somewhat neutral tone when we meet at the Post Office. "While I don't really like the name, I don't mind the premise that there's a crew of people thinking in the same way - you know, we're young and talking about our visions of Britain which are all very different."

Newland's Britain is encapsulated in the fictional neighbourhood of Greenside, a council estate which provided the setting for his first book, The Scholar. It is a place where hot sauce doesn't just come in bottles of Encona; bass-obliterating raves at local clubs send adrenalin rushing through teenage feet while friendship and trust are tested by the granite-grey presence of drug dealers and gunmen.

In The Scholar, a work praised for its vivid power, Newland brought to life an inner city environment that is as much misunderstood as misrepresented, a world where "yout" is subjected to moral dilemmas that juxtapose the quotidien with the quixotic - football in the park or switchblades on blooded tarmac, college work or armed robbery? The choice isn't yours.

Then there was his language, a bristling, bustling vernacular stamped as much by the West Indies as west London. In the meshing of splintered subterranean slang such as "bone" (crack cocaine) and Jamaican vocabulary like "bredrin" (brother), there was an authenticity that avoided exoticisation, a tone that pushed grit over glamour. Newland, who grew up in Shepherd's Bush, revisits Greenside in his new book, Society Within, a collection of short stories.

"You know, I didn't really know what I was doing when I wrote The Scholar," he chuckles, sinking into a white leather sofa. "I thought, how can I duplicate it when I didn't even know what I did? The Scholar wasn't meant to be anything other than this story about two guys, so the best thing was not to redo anything but to do something else from a different angle."

Unlike The Scholar whose protagonists were two young "brers", Sean and Corey, Society Within finds its pulse in the character of Elisha, a teenage girl who's just moved to Greenside. Her episodic presence gives the various stories a sense of continuity while the dominant female voice strikes a different chord from the previous work.

"I knew that I wanted strong female characters in The Scholar but I hadn't gone into as much depth as I wanted to because it would have been a hell of a long book," comments Newland. "In Society Within, I'm looking at Greenside again but the girls have got a stronger focus because I know I can write female characters.

"It's also the fact that Elisha is a newcomer to the estate.When you've lived somewhere for a long time you don't see certain things. I wanted an outsider's viewpoint."

He also wanted to cast his thematic net a bit wider. Society Within touches on racial politics as well as drug addiction. It also takes a closer look at the precise idiosyncrasies of a black British identity. In the dryly humorous story "Small Island Mindedness", Newland plays on the internal rivalries that are common among immigrant populations.

"I think that really comes from meeting people saying `I'm Jamaican, I'm Jamaican, my island's bigger than yours' and I'm thinking, well, you're not, man, you're from Manchester. Your parents are from Jamaica so why are you complaining about other people's islands being small? That's small island mindedness."

His dad's from Jamaica (4,244 square miles, population 2.6 million) and his mother from Barbados (166 square miles, population 260,000) so that's maybe why he's always been conscious of it. However, as you soon realise on meeting him, Courttia Newland has a sharp curiosity that gives him both a maturity beyond his years and an energy that reinforces his youth.

That may come from the somewhat peripatetic nature of his life to date. He left school at 15, went through the grind of signing on and squatting, found his way to college and promptly got kicked out. So he spent three years doing all sorts (rapping, trying to set up a record label), then started working again around the age of19.

He was a sales rep for six months, working for an outfit called Clearance. "We were like the SAS of door-to-door salesmen," he beams. "Every week we had different items, you get me, we were like a crack team and we'd just sell anything. It was hard but it taught me a lot. You have to see 100 people to sell 30 things so you get 70 refusals but you have to realise that in the long term every negative is closer to your positive. There's some truth in that but some days it just doesn't work, especially when you're selling kitchen knives that bend like this." His fingers cut a banana shape through the air. He twists another dread and relaxes further into the sofa.

Courttia Newland started writing seriously at the age of 21. It's not that he wasn't interested in writing before; he just wasn't interested in it as an occupation. His experiences in the workplace, especially seeing managers earn more than he did while doing less, convinced him that he should pursue a career where he had more control. Anyway, he was well prepared for a writer's life.

"All through that time I was reading shitloads of books," he reveals. "Stephen King, Ann Petrie, Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Richard Price, Dahl, Jackie Collins, Walcott, Lovelace. The lot. I've always read. When I wasn't writing I could smash a book in a day. Although I didn't realise it, all that reading was guiding me to what I'm doing now. I feel like I was meant to do this."

He admits to needing to brush up on West Indian and African literature but he has read a lot of Black British authors such as Joan Riley and Caryl Phillips, as well as expatriate Caribbeans such as Sam Selvon. In fact, Selvon's The Lonely Londoners, a classic of post-immigration literature, was pivotal in the development of The Scholar.

"I read that book when I was 19," affirms Newland. "In a lot of ways I wanted to do it again but in a new time. You know it was set in west London and I always liked the fact that Selvon was talking about an area I'd grown up in and he had the language as well. The Lonely Londoners did help me see that I could write in a Londoner's narrative voice, a West Indian Londoner's voice."

And that is probably the most accurate definition of Courttia Newland's work you're likely to hear. But despite the strength of his Black British identity, he is keen not to let his subject matter be restricted to what people might perceive as his territory.

So he's taking on Greek mytho-logy in a new play, Women Of Troy, and preparing a science fiction novel as soon as the right story comes along. "The Scholar has changed my life in terms of my view of myself," says Newland. "Before I wasn't sure whether I could write. Now I'm pretty damned sure. I've got more confidence and I'm open to a lot more things."

`Society Within' is published by Abacus, pounds 9.99. `Women Of Troy' is showing as part of the Portobello Festival (July 31 to August 6) and the Edinburgh Festival (August 10-28).

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