Talking to Courttia Newland
Dzifa Benson talks to acclaimed writer Courttia Newland, about his roots, inspiration and writing novels.
When Courttia Newland published his first novel The Scholar aged 23, he immediately captivated the media as one of the few black British writers who accurately portrayed teenage life in London’s inner cities. The Scholar quickly became a best-seller and is currently being made into a film by Courttia’s own production company Cofe.
His second novel Society Within, set on the same fictional Greenside Estate in West London, was published in 2002. Courttia’s third book Snakeskin, is set in the same world, but is a detective novel, which follows the quest to find the killer of a Labour MP’s daughter
Courttia has contributed to many short story anthologies including Disco 2000, Afrobeat and the Time Out Book of London Short Stories. Along with Kadija George, he edited IC3, a collection of stories and poetry reflecting several generations of British black writing. An acclaimed playwright, his plays include The Far Side, about the murder of a young black man by a white youth, and Mother’s Day, premiered at the Lyric Studio Hammersmith in autumn 2002 and most recently, B is for Black.
Courttia is writer in residence at the London College of Communication, and runs a weekly creative writer’s workshop in Shepherd’s Bush Library, West London.
Dzifa Benson: Do you think of yourself as a Caribbean writer?
Courttia Newland: I was born in Hammersmith and have been to the West Indies twice, both times to Christchurch, Barbados where my mom is from, so I don’t really feel Caribbean. I’ve never been to where my dad’s from ‘Kingston’, Jamaica. Up until I was in my early twenties my influences were very much Caribbean.
When my book, The Scholar came out and I started to travel, my influences started to change to more world influences. I went to places like Thailand, to the south, the islands, and thought, hold on a sec it looks exactly the same as in Barbados. Everything looked the same, it tasted the same, it felt the same. The sea’s the same. I’m standing in the sea and there’s flying fish.
DB: How did the Caribbean influence in your early life take form?
CN: Well, I considered myself West Indian up until I went to the West Indies.
DB: Why was that?
CN: Because that is what you’re always told. Everybody around saying they are West Indian. We were never termed as Black British by other people. In those boxes you had to tick there was no Black British, just Afro-Caribbean so I felt that I was Afro-Caribbean. But when I went to Barbados all the Bajans were calling me English boy. That’s when I realised, if they are not going to say I’m West Indian then I can’t be West Indian. Then when I came back I got strong on the Black British thing, which led to me writing my first book.
DB: Were there any West Indian writers who influenced your work?
CN: Obviously I was more into British stuff, but there were many West Indian writers whose work I admired – George Lamming, Sam Selvon, Earl Lovelace, Linton Kwesi Johnson of course. In my early years there was a dub poet, Michael Smith, who was based in Jamaica and who eventually got stoned to death. On the music side of things, I used to listen to Peter Tosh and lots of reggae artists because my mom was a Studio One freak and my dad was into Bunny Wailer.
DB: You started out as a musician and at the time, your influences leaned more towards hip hop. How did that translate into wanting to write books?
CN: I wanted to translate the hip hop into writing a book just because I wasn’t making any money from music –
DB: (Laughing unbelievingly) And you thought you could make more money from writing books?
CN: I know, not the smartest move I’ve made financially but I really thought the time was right and I felt that I could do it. Particularly, when Yardie by Victor Headley came out and everybody was going mad about it. Yardie was the beginning of the whole black British literature thing and it proved that books do sell to black British people and that we are reading even if it wasn’t the most politically correct book.
However, in its representation of Britain, especially London, it wasn’t on point at all. Especially when it was portraying black British youth – they talked wrong, they acted wrong. You could tell an older guy had written it. I wanted to do the insider’s view – I was about 19 when Yardie came out and I knew that I would be able to write from a 17 year old’s point of view more realistically. I wanted to put together a story that would show what it was like growing up at that time in Shepherd’s Bush and Ladbroke Grove.
DB: After The Scholar came Society Within. Because of those 2 books and for want of a better term, the publishing industry has tucked you into the ‘urban’ niche which as we know reads ‘black’ in media speak. Your most current novel Snakeskin pays tribute to hard boiled detective writers like Elmore Leonard and moves away from that ‘urban’ straitjacket. How much have people tried to lay a guilt trip on you by saying that you are no longer representing what it means to be black and British in your stories?
CN:People on the street are fine about it. I went to talk to prisoners in Feltham Young Offenders Institution when Snakeskin had just come out and all the brers in there were bigging up my books. They told me that I had reflected their lives from day one and didn’t have a problem with the new directions I was moving in. Every one of my books, every one of my stories is as urban, (in that it reflects life in the city) as The Scholar. They are about black people in the city doing different things. It’s still black people and it’s still in the city so I can’t understand and I can’t see how I would not be reflecting that in my work. All my plays feature black central characters so how are they any less urban than Society Within?
DB: Do you yourself feel any kind of need to maintain that urban thing? Would you for instance consider writing a story that had no central black character as a way of stretching yourself?
CN: Yes. I would write whatever story I felt like writing. The only thing that would bother me in terms of theatre and the film I am working on at the moment is that I would like to know that I am giving black people work. But if a story demands a central character who is not black, I will write that story. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone except myself. I feel that I have done the so called ‘urban’ or ‘black’ fiction. My last play was called B is for Black and had a black male central character. It doesn’t get much more representative than that. Even if I did a story that had a central character that was not black it would still be a story that black people could relate to and there would be black characters in it.
DB: Caryl Phillips wrote an article for The Guardian in July this year that asked the question why black people didn’t feature more in the writing of white British writers.
CN: I think that is an extremely disingenuous question for Caryl Phillips, an eminent scholar, to be asking. He knows why.
DB:Intellectual discourse only then?
CN: Yes, and that’s all it is. It doesn’t have any grounding in reality. And he asks that question while he is teaching in America and out of touch, perhaps, with what is happening over here. He takes great pains in one of the 3 stories in his book Higher Ground, to write from the perspective of a white central character and the other 2 stories from black characters points of view. He is an amazing, wicked writer but I would prefer that he wrote an article spelling out the reasons why black characters don’t feature more often in the work of white writers.
But still black British writers who have as successful a career as Caryl Phillips, all seem to do the same thing, asking why. Why not come and work with budding black writers and help us elevate those black central characters? Why doesn’t he advocate someone other than Zadie Smith, who is someone who hasn’t written any books or stories that feature black central characters. His essays don’t mention any other black writers. I feel a little lost when I look to those guys. We are supposed to be looking to them for inspiration and support and all they are writing about is why we haven’t got black central characters or black writers. If you are just trying to get paid then at least have the balls to admit it to us. Other than that I don’t see the point of why he is asking that question.
DB:Have you ever considered writing a story set in the Caribbean?
CN: I’d have to live there for at least a year before I would try to do that. And it would still be an outsider’s story. I am not going to write a story about living and growing up in the Caribbean when I haven’t. I couldn’t get published in America because they said my stories were too British and wouldn’t sell. They suggested that I wrote African-American stories with African-American characters. In this country, the only black fiction that sells right now is ‘Windrush’ or ‘ghetto’ fiction. It’s almost like an exotic notion of black British. You are treated as ‘other’ and as long as you are treated as ‘other’ you are accepted. You’ve got to know your place. You’ve got to know that you came from somewhere else first.
They (the publishing industry) don’t want to deal with you if you were born here and writing stories that buck the trend of what a black British writer should be writing about. This of course reverberates into a political arena and they would have to start facing up to some serious things about the way that they are treating people. They don’t want to do that so it’s best to keep putting into the artistic arena notions that you are still other. This is from personal experience.
DB:You are currently working on a collection of short stories that have a darker, twilight zone edge to them and the novel in progress has a more mystical theme. It’s obvious to me that you are trying to free yourself from any kind of preconceived notions of what black people can write about. How well do you think this new direction is going to go down?
CN: Well it is not going down at all well at the minute
CN: Because the short stories are just not selling.
DB:Is that because publishers are very reluctant when it comes to short story collections?
CN: Just to clear up something about the whole short story thing, it’s not that publishers don’t publish short stories. It’s that they only publish short stories by people they believe will sell. If they’re not into you or they don’t believe you have a market then they won’t publish you. Unfortunately, all black writers fall into that category. I know very few black writers who’ve had a book of short stories published.
DB:The only ones I can think of at the moment are American.
CN: Exactly. On the British side – Caryl Phillips has had a book of 3 novellas – not really short stories – published. I’ve published a book of short stories that were interlinked if you count Society Within. But I wouldn’t really count that as a book of short stories. So nobody. NOBODY in this country has a collection of short stories worth publishing? Some publishers have actually said to people that there aren’t any black writers that are any good.
DB:So what are you going to do?
CN: Publish it myself, probably. I’ve got about 12 short stories, 3 of which are only half written so I’m just going to tie those up. Sometime next year, I’ll look at trying to publish it through my own Tell Tales publishing company.
DB:And the novel?
CN: The novel I am still working on but it’s the same thing. It’s about astral projection, parallel worlds so no one’s interested.
DB:Can you tell us about the story of the novel? Who is the main character?
CN: He is called Marcus Deny. He lives in a city, Landin, which is a parallel city to London. Basically, he has spontaneous outer body experiences and this leads him to find that he can actually travel to parallel times in his own existence. He can travel to parallel versions of himself where he finds that physically he’s the same but his personality is different. It’s called A River Called Time. It explores the notion that instead of travelling forwards or backwards through time you can travel sideways and have these different versions of yourself through the rivers of time
DB:Sounds like a book I’d want to read.
CN: I’ve done readings of it and people like it so I know that it’s not that people don’t like it. When I’ve gone to publishers with it, it’s mainly the marketing departments saying but he does urban fiction so how are we going to market him doing something else? That’s what my problem is now. With The Scholar and Society Within I created a market for myself that I can’t escape from. Other writers seem to be allowed to do that. My favourite author in this country is a guy called Rupert Thompson. Every one of his books is different. Every time he writes a book it’s set in a different place, Mexico, Amsterdam, London. He’s written books set in a fictional place that he’s made up. That’s the kind of writer that I’ve always wanted to be. Paul Auster, same thing. Every one of his books is a different thing. I did 2 books set in the same area but stylistically, I tried to change them. Society Within was nothing like The Scholar in structure and I had thought that people would see that.
DB:Whose writing makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up?
CN: Loads, loads. Like I said, Paul Auster, Rupert Thompson, Iain Banks. When it comes to black writers there’s Coulson Whitehead who’s an amazing, African-American writer. About the only African-American writer that I would back right now because all the rest are on some money thing. I bet some people felt I was just trying to cash in when I came out with The Scholar. I’m not saying that is impossible for black writers to be included in the mainstream but the things you have to do to get there I can’t reconcile with myself. When I wrote The Scholar, I was always sure of where I wanted to go. I haven’t suddenly decided to try different things. I was going to write a ghetto fiction book yes, but I was going to try and make it sophisticated.
DB:So what are you reading at the moment?
CN: Nothing at the moment. The last book I read was Alex Garland’s Coma, an amazing writer. He doesn’t get any props from publishers but he’s just doing his own thing. Other writers I like are Chester Himes, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Paule Marshall (check), Rosa Guy. I’m not really a Toni Morrison fan or a Terri McMillan. I hate clichéd blackness which is what she does. I’m pro-black but that does not mean that I am anti anything else. I just want to live and write stories. I don’t care whether they are stories about black people or not.
If you’re black write stories only about white people, I’d think there’s something wrong. A lot of writers don’t write about what’s going on now. I’m not saying that you should never write about past but there should be a healthy balance. That’s what I’m trying to find within myself, personally and artistically. I read a lot of white authors, I read a lot of black authors, I want to get into Arabic and African fiction. There’s so much out there. I would really encourage black people to get out and see the world a bit more. Some black people have a really blinkered view of what it means to be black – you should only go on African or Caribbean holidays. If you take the example of books and expand it to your life, there is a whole world out there. We shouldn’t be so insecure about blackness that you think going to see the world in all its diversity is going to make you less black.
DB:2 very successful short story collections – Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by Z Z Packer and Interesting Women by Andrea Lee – certainly fly in the face of this idea that black writers can’t write or don’t sell to a universal readership.
CN: Can you imagine telling Steven Spielberg to stick to Jewish films? Or Martin Scorsese to only make films about gangsters? Does the publishing industry in this country really want black writers?
DB:Or is it to do with the fact that it wants black writers cast in a certain mould? Your Zadie Smiths or right now, Luke Sutherland who is being championed as the next big thing?
CN: Luke’s been around for ages. He was around when I did Scholar. NOW they want him to be the next big thing. Because they haven’t got anybody else. No disrespect to Luke he’s a fine writer just writing what he wants to write. He was brought up in Scotland but it just so happens that he fits into the niche that they are looking for. It gets to the point where it is not about your writing but more about your sensibilities and where you draw the line. It’s almost like choosing affiliations. Being affiliated with black culture penalises you. I have seen black writers run in fear from calling themselves black.
When black people in the industry try to raise a voice about it they are put aside and not allowed to be part of the mechanics that make these decisions. I don’t know what the next stage is going to be. I’m doing a thing in October which is about where black writing is and where it is going to go but I have no idea because things are bad right now. Unless you’re doing the Windrush fiction or the ghetto fiction or the I’m-a-black-writer-but-I’m-not-going-to-talk-about-my-colour fiction, those are the 3 choices you’ve got.