GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY WELCOME (2007)
Courttia Newland is a music fiend. He would really appreciate my saying this because he understands that music more than anything provides us with near-direct insight into a generation’s sense of itself. They wake up to it, fight fights to it, make love to it, dream dreams to it. To it and through it they communicate their value systems, their desires, and their vulnerability. Born in 1973 in Hammersmith, West London, to parents who had migrated from Barbados and Jamaica, Mr. Newland early on began a career in hip-hop production before redirecting his energies from music to literature. Specifically, he went about the agenda of transposing the pure immediacy of hip-hop idiom into book form in order to convey what was considered the popular through a more strictly literary mode of cultural expression.
He began writing seriously at age 21, and, in 1997, he published his first novel The Scholar. What is evident in his work is the urge to emphasize the complexities of life in a multicultural London while constructing narratives about people who have been largely excluded from the pages of mainline fiction—people whom he has known and been. Writers like Courttia Newland are made to adopt a principled, protective stance about the way that black and underserved people are depicted, particularly when this public identity is threatened in the work of those writing from the outside in. Even when they are otherwise well intended, the consistent misrepresentations of black British communities in contemporary media are irritating at the least and at worst extremely detrimental to the idea of thoughtful subjectivity. The character of these communities has been interpreted typically by those operating at a logistical disconnect, who are thus less genuine in their intentions and sometimes disingenuous in their curiosity about the driving factors in the lives of hungry youth—what this violence means, from whence this desperation stems.
Speaking on behalf those who have been to this point voiceless (in most spaces at least) and who yearn to see their lives reflected intelligently in print requires that writers maintain a finger on the pulse of what is happening today and be also astutely ambitious in their ideas of blackness in all of its possibilities. This work must not only offer up new renderings of underrepresented people but establish connections to an entirely new readership as well. Eloquent and accessible in his prose, Mr. Newland is himself a keen cultural reader who has been able to negotiate smoothly the relationship between the highly literary and the deeply popular in a manner that is distinctly black and British and current. The music that serves as a backdrop to his fiction also functions as a soundtrack to an intellectual project that demands real accuracy and insists that literature be active on the ground.
Courttia Newland is a history buff. He would appreciate my saying this because he understands that generations are in many ways survived by the example of their music. Mr. Newland is of a generation of black British writers who have sustained the criticism of their elders with regard to the content of their work and to their perceived irreverence, just as these elders sustained the criticism of their own forebears. Using the same cut-and-paste methodology applied in hip_hop production, these young writers have selected sections of nostalgia and sampled meaning to formulate revisionist notions of being at this technological juncture. This is a generation whose culture is clearly informed by their diasporic heritage but is in many ways removed from their families’ various points of origin. They are more alert than ever to the concerns and utility of this disjunct and resolved in their new cultural agency. They are cognizant of the interrelationship of race, class, gender, and nation as it affects the ways that they are received most viscerally as humans on the planet, commodified and globalized as representative bodies.
Mr. Newland has been over the course of his career contributing to and offering challenges to the prevailing discourse about what it means to be a black British writer and what it means to be a black British person. His work makes a compelling intervention into the generally unchecked approximation of the terms ‘urban’ and ‘black’ in the open market by demonstrating alternatives to the narrowly prescribed versions of black city dwelling that dominate the narratives of contemporary ‘ghetto fiction.’ And Mr. Newland’s project issues a challenge to the old guard to fulfill their roles as mentors to a group of writers trying to navigate the minefield of a publishing industry that overwhelmingly attempts to limit the options of those relatively few upstarts who wish to work outside this increasingly tight perimeter of what is called alternately too black and too urban and not black and not urban enough.
Mr. Newland actively chooses to represent black people and black communities so as to underscore their nuanced humanity with a sophisticated understanding of the potential political ramifications of such work. His characters’ claustrophobia is reflective of the near-suffocation of an emerging group of British authors who have until this time been struggling to represent the diversification of their own blackness regardless of whether or not it is a lucrative venture and regardless of whether or not they have garnered the approval of the older set. This new, expanded notion of what they—what we—are allowed in terms of self-expression serves to complicate any presumptuous idea of where black writing is right now and where it might be headed from here. Rather heroic and equally necessary, I think.
Following the publication of The Scholar, Courttia Newland published the critically acclaimed The Society Within in 1999 and Snakeskin in 2002. Mr. Newland’s plays include The Far Side and Mother’s Day, which premiered at the Lyric Studio in Hammersmith in 2002. Mr. Newland is the editor of the short fiction anthology IC3: The Penguin Book of New Black Writing in Britain which came out in 2000 and is comprised notably of sections reflecting the first, second, and third generations of writers. His own short stories have been featured in several other anthologies including The Time Out Book of London Short Stories, England Calling, and Afrobeat. In 2001, Mr. Newland cofounded the London arts organization Tell Tales. Dedicated to engaging the public through a combination of musical performance and storytelling, Tell Tales also produces anthologies of work by diverse groups of contemporary UK writers. Prior to this year’s British Council residency at Georgetown, Mr. Newland was selected in 2005 as the British Council Ireland’s International Writer Fellow at Trinity College, Ireland. In 2006 he published The Dying Wish as well as Music for the Off Key, another inspired collection of short stories. Hands, his first radio play, was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 last year. And Mr. Newland is currently at work producing a film adaptation of The Scholar.
From an introduction to Courttia’s residency at Georgetown University in March 2007, written by Prof. R. Scott Heath. Many thanks Scott.