Lesley Lokko: 'Don't ask me about 'black culture', I don't know what it is'

Danuta Kean meets the author and architect who is a product of Scotland, Ghana and English boarding school

Friday 18 January 2008 01:00 GMT

Growing up in Ghana, author and architect Lesley Lokko had a clear sense of her own identity. The daughter of a successful Ghanaian surgeon and a Scottish mother, she says: "My parents were very clear that I was half-Ghanaian and half-Scottish." It was only when she left for boarding school in England at 17 that she found that sense of self challenged by an identity imposed from outside that made little or no sense to her. She "boarded British Caledonian in Accra with my one idea, and arrived at Gatwick black – and I literally didn't know what that was," she explains, her face a picture of incredulity.

The experience of falling through the cultural cracks has inspired Lokko's latest globe-trotting saga, Bitter Chocolate (Orion, £12.99). Spread across three continents, the plot features three heroines: Laure, whose privileged upbringing in Haiti is no preparation for life in the US; Améline, Laure's reste-avec, a half-world existence in which she is neither servant nor mistress, but curiously has a stronger sense of identity than her co-heroines; and Melanie, daughter of a rock star who spoils her with everything apart from love and falls off the rails spectacularly. Their adventures with the porn industry, drug barons, Manhattan's East Side elite and even an English tea-shop have all the ingredients of the classic bonkbuster, though delivered with more social consciousness than the average Jackie Collins.

Dressed in grey V-neck sweater, silk scarf and blue jeans, with her trademark black curls scraped into a severe bun, Lokko could not look less like a pioneer of the Glam Lit movement that has added blood and lust to the anaemic shelves of women's fiction. Her bestselling status was guaranteed by her debut, Sundowners, which topped charts and sold 100,000 copies. Bitter Chocolate was, she admits, a struggle. "Everyone said the second was going to be the difficult one." She adds hastily: "It wasn't that I had writers' block – if anything I had too much to say."

Among that "too much" was how our status in one culture can leave us exposed in another. Nowhere is this more apparent than with Laure: 17, beautiful and privileged, she longs to see her mother, Belle, who fled the safety of upper-class Haiti for downtown Chicago. A liaison with an American soldier sees Laure's wish granted, but in Chicago her dreams are shattered as she finds herself crashing to the bottom of the heap in a harsh society.

"I went out with a Haitian for quite a long time," Lokko recalls of her own time in Chicago. Not that his origins were immediately apparent: it was 1980s America, and Haiti's standing seriously undermined by rumours that Aids had originated there. "The kids in his high school would call him 'Aids Monkey'". Her face contorts in disgust. "This was from black kids, so there was a huge amount of shame about his origin."

That shame is conveyed in Bitter Chocolate, as is the shame within Haitian society around skin colour, revealed to Lokko by conversations with her Haitian boyfriend's mother. "They have 64 different words for shades of colour. For any culture to go to that length to be so concise about mixes of Indian/black, black/white and so forth...". Her words trail off and she raises her hands and sighs in exasperation. "It is a culture steeped in secrecy. There are a lot of things that are not expressed and lots of shame. So I thought it would be interesting to look at what it is like to grow up in a culture where nothing is said but everything is seen."

The Haitian narrative, which runs parallel to the story of Melanie rebelling in an English boarding school, is the most cohesive part of the novel, and reflects Lokko's identification with the culture. It also reflects that, unlike her previous two novels, Bitter Chocolate was written in Ghana and not the cottage near Edinburgh she usually rents when writing, though she drew also on vivid experiences at boarding school and Los Angeles, where she has said she was "duped, tricked, bamboozled, ripped off and challenged". Just like Laure? "No, no," she answers, laughing. "Nothing like that." Her eyes widen in shock. "I didn't end up working in porn!"

Surprisingly, she sees parallels between America and British public schools. For her, America "is like boarding school, it brings out the best and worst in people... There is something about public schools here that makes strong characters stronger and weak characters weaker. They bring out the best and worst in people."

The two years she spent studying for A- levels at Malvern School were not, Lokko insists, desperately unhappy, but she saw plenty of girls like Melanie. "They appeared to have everything but the one thing that they wanted, which was affection," she recalls. "A lot of it was played out through men, through drugs, through wild living. They were hyperactive, but then you would come across them in corners sobbing their hearts out." The sobs gave context to the casual racism dealt out by some, though Lokko is forgiving. "One of the things I learnt was that the unhappier those girls were the more vicious they were. Their way of getting rid of the angst was by making someone feel worse," she says matter-of-factly.

In America she witnessed the same ruthlessness towards weakness. It is, she believes, a product of a vicious social Darwinism. The US "wouldn't be what it is without immigration, but on the other hand the model of assimilation is so brutal that if, for whatever reason, you don't make it, you fall to the bottom." Laure's and Melanie's stories expose this underbelly of the American Dream. "The emotional cost of migration is not something that is talked about very much in the United States," observes Lokko, who as an academic in architecture specialised in diasporas.

The rigid structures of architecture caused her to turn to writing novels. "In a peculiar way architecture was probably the wrong discipline for me," she asserts. It seems a strange claim: we are in the café of the Royal Institute of British Architects, where Lokko has been a noted speaker. Though she is this year taking time out from the profession, it is one at which she has excelled. "It is one of those disciplines that spends a lot of its time policing its borders talking about what is architecture." Her interests are far more fluid: identity, race and diaspora. "I was trying to find a medium in which I could talk about those things without this constant discussion of whether it was or was not architecture."

One thing she has found in both disciplines is an institutional resistance – she shies away from the word "racism" – to African-Caribbean professionals being viewed beyond narrow cultural boundaries. "When I started out a publisher said that if I published as a Black writer, I would sell 300 copies on the 'Black Interest' shelf... I said to myself, 'What is this Black Interest?'" As someone who grew up reading Jackie Collins, she could not understand why her own writing and readership should be limited according to her race.

She echoes the frustration of other African-Caribbean writers, burdened with the expectation from a predominantly white industry that their work should reflect some homogenised "black experience", especially of racism. "For black writers, unlike Asian, Bangladeshi or whatever writers, the sum total of your existence is somehow defined by racism," Lokko rails. "To me my world couldn't be further away from that. It is not that I haven't experienced racism... but it is not the sum total of who I am. Besides, why must your voice always have to be located in this place of pain?"

She adds animatedly, "What is 'black culture'? I don't know", and harks back to that flight from Accra to Gatwick when she was 17. "I have as much in common with someone from Nigeria as someone from Beijing. We are never expected to understand our cultural particularities. If you start off from this broad meaningless category, I don't understand how you can extract meaning from it." It is an issue she hopes her work tackles in a way that reaches beyond a handful of academics or the narrow confines of "literary fiction". "Fiction for me, growing up in Ghana, was this way to see another world," she says. "I think that is important and is what the best fiction does."

Biography: Lesley Lokko

Born in 1964 in Scotland to a Ghanaian surgeon and a Scottish mother, Lesley Lokko grew up in Ghana and was later educated at Malvern School. She read Hebrew and Arabic at Oxford University, but dropped out to spend five years in America, where she studied sociology and law before settling on architecture, in which she has a PhD. Frustrated by the rigidity of architecture, she wrote her first novel Sundowners (2004) after reading a Time Out article on how to write a best-seller. Inspired by Jemima Khan, it set the jet-setting, glamorous, cross-cultural template for her following two novels, Saffron Skies (2005) and the new Bitter Chocolate (Orion) and heralded the return of the "bonkbuster". She divides her time between London, Ghana and Scotland.

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