by Joziann Lewis, #bocas2018 Youth Blogger
When you hear the name Alex Wheatle, what comes to mind?
Prior to the one-on-one seminar which I was fortunate to have attended, I would have said, and only said, “An award winning, Jamaican, black author.” Now, while that statement is definitely true, it’s lacking something. Something that defines Alex Wheatle’s writing. Something that defines his spectacular novels. Something that makes Alex Wheatle, Alex Wheatle; a man whom I have grown to respect even more because of his words of wisdom, which he so eagerly extended to his audience. It is with great honour that I am now able to share with you, everything which I took away from the session, and hopefully, it will leave as much of an impact on you, as it did on me, after the very first question.
The seminar commenced with a history of Wheatle’s childhood, in relation to his journey toward becoming a writer.
Wheatle stated that he was raised in an orphanage from the ages of 3-14. There were 800 children in the Children’s Home, and they were all meaningless in the eyes of the caregivers. They told Wheatle that his life was worthless and that he was a waste of space inside the very building. They all believed that Wheatle would end up in jail, simply because of the colour of his skin, and the common stereotyping that came with being a black citizen in society. The insults were also quite ironic, since the caregivers were also black individuals. This prompted Wheatle to further express the lack of black role models in his life.
When he left the Children’s Home to return to Brixton, he developed a strong connection to Reggae music and even performed songs under the name of Yardman Irie. He learnt about black pride and latched onto it. Wheatle came to the realization that he had gradually been brainwashed in the orphanage, and because of the constant put-downs, his self-worth was destroyed. However, in Brixton, he slowly began to feel comfortable in his own skin, while discovering his true identity.
However, his newfound sense of importance had its ups and downs. Wheatle stated that he faced tough times on the street, having been homeless, hustling, and even imprisoned due to his involvement in the Brixton riot.
When asked about his experience in prison, Wheatle explained that his prison term only enhanced his love for Reggae music, due to his cellmate being a Rastafarian. The man had introduced Wheatle to the work of historian and journalist, C.L.R. James, by giving Wheatle his copy of The Black Jacobins.
It was at this point that Wheatle finally discovered who he really was. All his life, he had grown accustomed to the blatant oppression of black people. He was taught that people like him were made to be subservient to white folks. After reading about the resistance of his people in The Black Jacobins, Wheatle even wondered why the book was never taught or mentioned in schools.
Wheatle started writing Brixton Rock because he wanted to reach out to individuals who went through similar situations. When asked about his opinion on the changes of Brixton throughout the last three decades, Wheatle expressed concern. He believes that family support systems are being ripped apart due to the affordability of certain properties to black people, which tend to be miles away from loved ones. Wheatle believes that black people need to support each other in order to preserve the memory of what Brixton was. He shared a story about an incident which occurred in his sister’s class at her school. Usually, the class would attend a field trip to Israel and if one student could not afford to pay the fee, every student would voluntarily tip in, to ensure that every classmate experienced the same opportunities, despite race or background.
To conclude the session, Wheatle discussed the importance of incorporating music in his fiction. In Wheatle’s head, Reggae influences the words to the story itself. He feels the need to include originality in his work, in terms of dialogue. He wants readers to be able to differentiate between his work and other authors, on the basis of dialogue. Wheatle expressed the longing to preserve his language, and informed the audience that everyone should be proud of their dialect.
At the end of this seminar, Alex Wheatle proved that despite his success, he has not forgotten where he came from and how it has impacted him as both a writer and a human being. I deeply admire his bravery, and see him as an inspiration to many young adults in society. He had the strength to overcome what many would have crumbled at, and emerged the best person he could possibly be. It is truly remarkable that he is providing children who were like him with the support he needed when he was their age.
If there was ever any doubt in my mind about how to represent diverse communities in literature, I can honestly say that Alex Wheatle told me all the different ways and took me back to the good ole’ days.
Images by Marlon James, official Festival Photographer.
Joziann Lewis is a 14 year old, Trinidadian Blogger and Book Critic, who currently attends St. Joseph’s Convent, San Fernando. She is a proud advocate of human rights and gender equality. Her blogging platform is home to over 11,000 active readers, and a wide range of articles on social issues/controversial topics. Joziann continues to prove herself in the field of writing and journalism, advocating particular opinions to her vast audience. She aspires to write and publish her own YA novel in the future, and has already been recognized for her prominent online short stories.