AAmid the roar of brunch time in a busy South London café, Alex Wheatle is talking about how, lately, he has been considering the pop culture of the 1970s and how it has shaped and distorted his perception of itself. “I grew up with Tarzan on TV; Tarzan beat all the blacks he came across and was able to talk to the animals while the blacks couldn’t, ”he says. “And I hate to admit it, but when I was 10 or 11, I actually cheered for Tarzan when he was fighting a so-called ‘savage.’ Only later did I think, ‘I think I was wrong about that.’
In many ways, Wheatle’s 20-year writing career has been about correcting that mistake. For if the focus of the author’s first extraordinary years was on the falsehoods surrounding his heritage, his history, his worth, his implicit inferiority to a white savior in loincloth, then the intervening period has been to create depictions of nuanced black heroism. He was denied when he was a child.
Did it with Brixton Rock, the 1999 debut that introduced readers to the troubled child of the Brenton Brown system of care and the signature crunch of Wheatle’s street prose. Did it with Knights of Crongton, the 2016 Guardian Children’s Fiction Award winner who interpreted the council’s property turf wars with wit, care and depth. And now, in a historic period in his career that coincides with a Steve McQueen movie about his life, he’s done it again with Cane Warriors: A tense and urgent young adult novel set in the real-life slave uprising that took place on a Jamaican plantation in 1760.
At first glance, the story, told through the eyes of Moa, a 14-year-old enlisted in a brutal rebellion led by a fellow slave known as Tacky, feels like a departure for Wheatle. The “ripper” wielding foremen and rural cane fields are a world away from the modern, multicultural cityscapes and tongue-in-cheek socialism that have long been their hallmark. But as Wheatle, now 57, sees it, Moa’s story fits her personal story. The first signs of his interest in writing came while he was serving a four-month prison sentence for his role in the 1981 Brixton riots, when his cellmate handed him a ruined copy of The Black Jacobins, CLR James’ seminal account of Toussaint L’Ouverture’s 18th century work. slave revolt and the resulting Haitian revolution. “That changed everything for me,” she says, pouring more tea from her kettle. “Because, up to that point, I had only seen blacks as victims or subordinates. Reading a text in which there was an incredible black hero really opened my eyes to the world. It led me to look for other black heroic texts, because they had been denied me all those years. So I sit, with Cane Warriors, I have completed the circle. “
Which is not to say that the route from book to publication was straightforward; tells me that his “previous editors weren’t very enthusiastic about Cane Warriors”. But Wheatle, who first learned of the bloody revolt on a trip to Jamaica with his father, did not refuse. And soon he was going through historical records that gave him the backbone of a story. The hard facts were difficult to establish, he says. “But there was definitely a slave uprising that happened on Easter Sunday in 1760, started by this guy Tacky, who was rumored to be an African prince. I knew it [the slaves] killed the foremen and masters on the plantations, marched to [coastal garrison] Fort Haldane, sacked it and obtained 40 guns and gunpowder. “
Aside from the unwavering and crisp nature of his violence, one of the most surprising things about Cane Warriors is the specificity of his language. Moa and her fellow slaves talk, in acrid patois, of falling “eyes of water” and “bruk-out”; of the will of the Akan gods of West Africa, where the tragedy of the death of a fellow slave is compounded by the hard work of having to dig his “well.” Even with a necessarily limited descriptive palette, Wheatle paints with trademark vividness. And the turning point between African and Caribbean cultures that Cane Warriors documents is totally deliberate.
“On the first page, the difficulty for me was that I had to make a decision about how my characters were going to speak,” he explains. “Were they going to speak in a Jamaican vernacular? Was it influenced by something from the Akan or Ghanaian culture? I had to make a decision and I thought, you know what, some aspects of the book must show that they are people who come from Ghana. I have to honor that. But in everyday speech, he wanted to honor their Jamaican character. I wanted the world to know that these characters, these warriors, these rebels, they were Jamaicans. “
In light of the debates surrounding British historical figures linked to slavery, and amid calls to give black British history a more meaningful place in the curriculum, Cane Warriors it serves an especially resounding educational purpose in 2020. Again, this is by design. “It dates back to [Nigerian writer] Chinua Achebe says that the lion never gets to tell the story of the hunt, ”says Wheatle. “I want to direct the eyes of young students to this part of British history that is so important and necessary to me. Because now we are a diverse country. And when I was in school, maybe my attention span was not the best, but to some extent I got bored with Henry VIII and his six wives and the rotation of agricultural crops. I said, ‘Where am I in this? Where are all my ancestors? ‘”
In a forceful epilogue, Wheatle advocates for reparations for slavery, citing the £ 20 million reimbursement sum that the British government promised to slave owners after slavery was outlawed in 1833. And particularly after this summer out of protests, Wheatle wants to explain the vital role that slave rebellion leaders like Tacky played in clearing the path to abolition. “The slaveholders were losing money due to the riots,” he says. “He interrupted them in a massive way, so I can imagine them thinking, ‘Is it really worth it?’ The uprisings had a massive impact. Hopefully Cane Warriors will help address that. It wasn’t just a kind white savior in the House of Commons saying, ‘Slavery has got to end.’ It was never as simple as that. “
It’s fair to say that Wheatle’s current position, a quietly formidable authority on black history, with an MBE awarded in 2008 for his services to literature, stands in stark contrast to his early days. Wheatle’s Jamaican mother was already married with four children when she met his father in London; she returned home after Wheatle’s birth, while her father, a Jamaican-born teacher, struggled to cope as a single parent. Wheatle grew up in Shirley Oaks, a famous Croydon children’s home; Just this summer, an independent investigation heard evidence of how its residents had endured sustained physical, sexual and racial abuse, with 48 deaths occurring over a 20-year period.
Wheatle has previously spoken of the dehumanizing treatment he experienced there (in a 2014 newspaper column, he recounted that his earliest memories are of “being beaten with wooden brushes, belts, and hard-soled shoes”) and his personal history of trauma in home for old people. – and the salvation he later found as a teenager on the fringes of the Brixton reggae sound system scene – reverberates throughout his work. Today, when asked how he got seemingly unscathed from such a painful start, he points out that appearances can be deceiving.
“I have my flaws,” he says. “I have my nightmarish moments where sometimes my past comes back and hits me when I wasn’t expecting it. But that’s okay. It does not weaken me. It makes me more empathetic to the people who go through those experiences. And it helps me write when I’m creating characters that experience stress and trauma. “
This winter more people will know his story thanks to Small axSteve McQueen’s blockbuster film anthology of the West Indies experience in the UK between the late 1960s and mid-1980s. Wheatle was already on the project’s writing room in 2016 (“ I’m not sure if Steve remembers how much he trembled in the interview, ”he laughs) when a story focused on“ a young black man going through institutions ”was suggested. “And one of the fellow writers said, ‘Alex, what about you?’ I was a little overwhelmed, and then Steve said, ‘Alex, are you hiding me?’ “
The next day, he brought copies of his Lambeth council file and soon the movie, titled Alex Wheatle, which traces his journey from Shirley Oaks to the Brixton uprising, prison and beyond, was born. McQueen even offered him the chance to write it, but the author understandably felt “too close.”
As we speak, Wheatle has yet to see a finished version of the movie. But he had multiple meetings with Sheyi Cole, the actor who played his younger self (“I taught him how to fuck, which I’m sure will appear on YouTube soon,” he jokes), visited the set and enjoyed another moment of the circle, courtesy of the fact that her son, one of her three adult children, worked at the Small ax production design team. “He called me and said, ‘Dad, I’m getting your room ready for young Alex, which is screwed,’” says Wheatle, laughing.
After some false dawns with adaptations of his books throughout his career (East of Acre Lane, describing the Brixton uprising, was chosen by the BBC in 2001), the experience in Small ax It has given him a taste for screenwriting and adaptation. “It’s something I want to develop slowly,” he says. “Because I loved the collaboration and I loved the writers room.”
For now, though, he’s waiting for the pandemic to pass, considering a possible move from London and publishing another young adult novel: The humiliations of Welton Blake, an obscene comedy of errors that arose directly from “the need to laugh” after Cane Warriors. However, this should not be construed as doing it with historical narratives: long-standing plans are taking shape to write about “the Caribbean migration to Panama and, subsequently, what happened with other slave revolts.”
Does Wheatle have any apprehension about telling stories of slaves that, by their very nature, require some degree of black suffering, trauma, and torture? “There was some hesitation because I expected certain commenters to say, ‘Oh, do we have to face this again?'” He says. “But sometimes we have to bring it back to the source of our pain. No one complains when someone comes up with another Queen Elizabeth I narrative. No one complains when those tales are repeated and re-told, so why does it make some people uncomfortable when I write about what happened to them? to my ancestors? Fortunately, we have come a long way from the throbbing colonialism of Tarzan. But Wheatle intends, with typical vigor and compassion, to remind us how far we still have to go.
• Cane Warriors is published by Anderson Press (£ 10.99). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Small Ax: Alex Wheatle will air on BBC One on Sunday 6 December
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