The race problem with the Booker

Britain’s premier book prize is presented tonight. It’s a shame it continues to ignore talented black writers, argues author Alex Wheatle

Sunday 23 October 2011 19:13

Although without much plot, I enjoyed Stephen Kelman's Pigeon English, especially the narrative voice of 11-year-old Harrison that was laced with humour, innocence and authenticity. The story, [which features the internal voice of a pigeon] could have done without the pigeon's perspective but I hope it secures a victory at the forthcoming Man Booker ceremony because depictions of the black underclass in the UK are so rare in literary fiction.

I do wonder why it had to take a white author to explore the black underprivileged to finally attract the attention of a major award.

Encouraged by the success of Irvine Welsh's Scottish working-class dialect-driven Trainspotting, long-listed for the 1993 Booker Prize, and by James Kelman's Booker-winning How Late It Was, also written in an uncompromising Scottish vernacular, I began to make notes on my own debut novel, Brixton Rock, intending my characters to speak in the unique young black Brixtonian argot of 1980.

I believed I was following in the ink blots of Blake, Dickens, Alan Sillitoe, John Osborne, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright. They had all articulated a certain truth about the state of society in their work.

It was through the narratives of these writers and others that I acquired much of my knowledge concerning working-class cultures worldwide. When I was at school, if I was given a textbook relating to a working-class theme, I would have tossed it aside; present it to me in fiction, however, and I would snatch the book out of a scandalised teacher's grasp.

Further impetus presented itself in 1997 when the black writer Courttia Newland published his debut novel, The Scholar. Set in the fictional Greenside estate in West London, the book describes the lives of two young black males surrounded by deprivation, drugs and violence. The book received widespread acclaim, including a review in these pages that applauded "a glimpse into an urban nightmare where violence is casual, drugs are the norm... a freshness in the details and in the dialogue." The Times wrote that "the characterisation and convincing sense of place give the story a confident air of plausibility... A distinctive perspective."

With plaudits rapidly filling book review pages, Newland could have been forgiven for believing that a nomination for an important literary award was a possibility. Not a whiff. Meanwhile, I was quietly working away on Brixton Rock, dreaming of becoming a working-class champion like my literary heroes.

Soon after the publication of The Scholar, Tim Lott published White City Blue, a story about the white working class set in West London, just a petrol bomb's hurl away from Newland's Greenside estate. Among other nominations, White City Blue was listed for the Whitbread First Novel Award.

Another black male author, Stephen Thompson, published Toy Soldiers at the turn of the century, an unflinching portrayal of drug abuse and rehabilitation. Thompson was encouraged by excellent reviews. This from Metro: "Beautifully plotted... in his sensitive interest in social outsiders, Thompson crafts an emotional honesty from a subject others would sensationalise or exploit." Not a nomination anywhere.

When I published my second novel, East of Acre Lane, I was still new to the game, believing that all things were possible. So when my follow-up to Brixton Rock received great critical praise, I dared to imagine that I might get long-listed for a major prize. One reviewer wrote, "Wheatle has written a hard-hitting novel which is an incendiary reminder of one of the most explosive events in London's post-war history." But again, not a whiff.

I am unaware of how publishing houses select submissions for major literary awards, but I imagine they believe that narratives that describe the black underclass, penned by black working-class males, will be viewed as inferior by judges.

Since I have managed to get published, I have only received a single invitation to take part in the three major literary festivals. I feel it has been a succession of lost opportunities for me as well as book fans, because when I have had the chance to read my work to audiences and relate the real-life experiences that inform my storytelling, they are genuinely fascinated and eager to learn more.

To date, I have yet to receive an invitation to appear at the London Literature Festival, its venue at the Southbank just a council estate away from where many of my characters live out their lives. This is where frustration sets in, because I know that there is a healthy interest amongst the reading public for black working-class stories if they are written well. But it's almost impossible to alert readers to these narratives when they are not found on discount tables in the vast majority of Waterstones bookstores, never long-listed for any major award or ever debated on arts programmes.

My sixth novel, The Dirty South, published in 2008, received more significant praise than East of Acre Lane. One review that was particularly satisfying came from the Daily Express: It said: "Wheatle is a man with a mission. He believes that truth has to be articulated..." While the August riots raged in London and politicians and media folk were asking why today's youth took to the streets, I chuckled to myself thinking that they could do worse than read The Dirty South, where in one early scene a young black male is kicked within an inch of his death by a gang for his pair of top-of-the-range Nike trainers.

Many of the characters I described were totally immersed in a consumer-led society, surrounded from all angles by brand-name advertising. They can only define themselves with the clothes and shoes that they wear. But when I present my truth in literature it is ignored by the literary elite and dismissed as "ghetto fiction" in some quarters.

Wisened by nearly a decade of being in the game and sobered by the harsh reality of being a black male author who writes about black people living on the margins, it did not pass my mind for a moment that I would be long-listed for anything for The Dirty South.

I have accepted that if I continue in the same vein I will never get to sport a bow-tie, black jacket and exchange plastic smiles with the great and good of the literary world at award ceremonies. My name's not on the list and they won't let me in.

I now know that the certain truth in my work and that of other black authors who tell the tales of the black underprivileged is not palatable to the literary establishment. They only want to view it through white-tinted sunglasses – and that obscures much of the whole view.

In Pigeon English, Stephen Kelman made a bold choice to write about the black underclass. I believe more white writers should do the same. But it's an even braver decision to do so if you're a black writer, knowing you will never be garlanded for your labours.

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