ITZ CARIBBEAN (2005)
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. His second novel Society Within, set on the same fictional Greenside Estate in West London, was published in 2002 and has been commissioned by BBC3 as a TV serial.
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. His fourth, The Dying Wish is a Quick Reads Novella featuring Ervine James, the PI from Snakeskin.
His latest book is a collection of macabre short stories that focus on the darker side of human nature.
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, Whistling Maggie.
Itz Caribbean’s Dzifa Benson managed to buy some time out of his hectic schedule to talk about what it means to be a black British writer.
Dzifa: Do you think of yourself as a Caribbean writer?
Courttia: I was born in Hammersmith and been to the
West Indies twice both times to Christchurch, Barbados
where my mum is from. So I don’t really feel
Caribbean. And 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
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
going 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
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
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
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. One of my plays 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
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
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
DB: Have you ever considered writing a story set in
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
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
DB: Why’s that?
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
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
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,
Lundin, 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
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 Colson 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,
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 and 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 fiction, into 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
fiction; those are the 3 choices you’ve got.