Alt.Britain with a high strop-factor

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The Independent Culture

Only one black writer featured in the Big Read top 100. No, it wasn't Toni Morrison, James Baldwin or even Zadie Smith. It was Malorie Blackman, for her teenage thriller Noughts and Crosses.

Only one black writer featured in the Big Read top 100. No, it wasn't Toni Morrison, James Baldwin or even Zadie Smith. It was Malorie Blackman, for her teenage thriller Noughts and Crosses.

Noughts and Crosses was her 50th novel and the sequel, Knife Edge, has just been published (Doubleday £12.99). She lives in Beckenham, Kent, with her husband, her eight-year-old daughter and 12,000 books.

She greets me warmly, hand outstretched, beaming widely. She comments, to me and the photographer, that her mother says she shouldn't show her teeth when she smiles, but she always does. "Because they're too big," Malorie explains with a peal of laughter.

I ask whether her daughter Lizzie reads her books. "Yes, the ones for younger readers. But not Noughts and Crosses and Knife Edge - they wouldn't be suitable for an eight-year-old." No, indeed: they feature sex and violence, racism and terrorism. They're set in an alternative Britain where the blacks (Crosses) are the ruling majority and the whites (noughts) are discriminated against.

"When I was a child, I'd spend all day reading in the local library and when I went home I'd take out as many books as I could get on my ticket - and in all those thousands of books I read, I never once read one about a black child like me. So when I started writing in my twenties, I wanted to write all the mysteries and whodunnits and thrillers and adventure stories with black children in that I'd missed as a child. But people used to say to me, Why don't you write about racism? As if as a black writer that's the only thing I should write about. After I'd been writing for about 10 years people were still saying it, so I thought, all right: I will write about racism, but I wanted to turn it on its head, challenge people's assumptions."

Noughts and Crosses centres on the doomed romance between Callum, a nought, and Sephy, a privileged Cross and the daughter of a prominent politician. The story ends bleakly; but Knife Edge is bleaker still. It continues the story of Sephy, now 18 with a mixed-race baby to bring up, and entwines it with that of Jude, Callum's embittered older brother, a member of the terrorist Liberation Militia. Most of the characters, both black and white, are hard, angry and unforgiving - there's a high strop-factor. The few good characters in this world don't exactly thrive.

"But bad things do happen to good people, don't they?" she points out. "Jude is a bastard, of course [peal of laughter] and in the previous book Callum ends up killing someone. My publishers said the reader will lose all sympathy with him - but I wanted the reader to... not sympathise with him exactly, because I don't condone terrorism at all, but to empathise with him. To understand what pushes people to do things like that."

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