Patrice Lawrence is the acclaimed author of Granny Ting Ting, Orangeboy and Indigo Donut. She writes for a young adult audience, and her work has won both the Waterstones Children's Book Prize for Older Children and the Bookseller Young Adult Book Prize. Joe Barnes spoke to her about what the future holds for young people in Britain.
Which books and authors have shaped you as a person?
I grew up in West Sussex in the 70s and 80s. I was a compulsive reader. When I started secondary school I had two really good English teachers - one suggested I read a book called Pigman, by Paul Zindel, and another Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O'Brien. Those were the sort of books that were about young people and were contemporary.
Then I went to the local library and discovered books that, if it hadn’t been for a wonderful librarian, I’d never have found. These were books that taught me that you could write fiction for young people about their lives. Before that, I’d always read the sort of fiction that was available for children in Edwardian times – Wind in the Willows and books like that. And then you’d go to school and do Shakespeare, Keats etc.
There was never anything there about young black people’s lives - you were never a protagonist in your own story. Then I discovered the black feminist Belle Hooks – what she was talking about was making black women's gazes important. If you went to a cinema to watch a romance, it was always a white woman and a white guy.
People would say how beautiful she was, but actually that notion of beauty is a very particular European notion of beauty to which I can never aspire - yet we have to squeeze ourselves into that paradigm. What Belle Hookes was saying was you can look at that and say “hang on, I don’t think she’s beautiful”: it gave me permission to reassess what I look at through my own subjectivity.
While you're competing with television and other genres, is it more difficult for writers these days to influence the cultural agenda?
Well, as a writer you have possibilities such as school visits. I was in Bath the other day and spoke in front of 400 young people, which is a significant number. But the issue is that the school exam structure is very strict, so I think perhaps kids need to have to really want to read - there’s sometimes a snobbishness about what’s relevant.
My daughter got into Manga and anime because she was just so tired of studying books at school, and through that she’s begun studying Japanese. The spoken word scene is also really big at the moment, and lots of young people and collectives come together to create their own works.
The traditional publishing method has to rethink what it does in order to get young people engaged.
You gave a talk recently at Brixton Library, which is fighting to remain open in the face of spending cuts. Do you think governments have a role to help people continue to be inspired by literature?
That’s definitely a big issue. Hackney and Tower Hamlets are lucky in that we have a really great library, but it really does depend on where you live. I think a lot of people’s engagement with libraries comes as a child through playgroups and story time - and libraries have a really strong role, running book groups for young people for example.
Schools have also taken away that joy of reading for pleasure. For example my daughter is currently studying Macbeth, but they only study bits of it from a worksheet - they don’t even read the whole play! How do they know the context or even begin to enjoy it?
Another former primary school teacher was telling me that at school they were studying an Antony Brown book. He's as famous as an illustrator as an author, so the words really relate to the images. Yet the management in the school told her that it was better to do it from a black and white worksheet, so that pleasure was lost. Why would you want to read something if you’re just going to get tested on it? It’s a real pity.
Do you feel that you have a responsibility to be an activist as a writer? Should other writers feel the same?
I do. Everybody writes for different reasons, but writing for the age group I do I think there is a responsibility. I write about young people making tough decisions, and not always the right ones, but I want to write books where there's hope and I where young people have agency over their own lives. There is usually a sort of moral compass in there even if it’s not always that obvious.
I also wanted to talk about how to position black families in books and how you encourage stereotypes. So, for example, in Orangeboy there had to be no dad for the sake of the plot, but I didn’t want to write another 'absent dad' book. And basically wanted the story to be that the dad had died but had left his record collection to Marlon, and that’s how he knows his dad - so there was still love and intimacy in that family.
In Indigo Donut, the dad is black, he’s a social worker, his mum’s a teacher - sort of lefty liberal - and he’s named after the Old Bailey, because they met on a night bus going past it. I just wanted that sense of how to represent black families, it’s incredibly important to me and those little things can change perceptions as well.
It’s also about how young people recognise themselves. There was a young person that came up to me at the end of an Indigo Donut school event and said that the story had given him flashbacks because he had been in care, his dad had been in prison for attempted manslaughter and his mum for drug offences. But he felt it was really important that those stories got told. So hearing that representation of young people - hearing their own voices - feels incredibly important to me.
Do you think that today’s young adult generation have it harder than previous generations? How is masculinity changing, especially for young boys, and how are they adapting to that?
I’m not sure if masculinity has ever changed that much, really. If you think back to the 60s or 70s where women couldn’t get mortgages, it had to be in the man’s name, the division of gender roles has always played out and been supported by society. I think now there are probably more choices about the type of man you could be, but depending on the type of environment that you live in or the group that you mix in, how do you do that?
I saw an interesting story recently about a young, black, gay guy who lives in Hackney who was completely accepted by all the street gangs, so it’s really interesting how these interactions happen. I think today even if you don’t find your group locally, then you can find them online.
You have forums that support you - obviously there’s a bad side of the internet but there’s a really supportive side as well - you can find your tribe, talk over things, explore. In London at the moment the discussion around gender, sexuality and identity feels more sophisticated than it ever has been. But then I think people are still left wondering, "What am I?" Because there are so many camps to go into!
What you have available and your points of reference depend upon how many opportunities you get. So a person exposed to many different opportunities has more varied points of reference. As such, they’ll have more choice about their potential identity than someone who doesn’t have that.
Economically, things are unfair. The school system doesn’t help either, particularly when you have things like grammar schools - which just leave kids feeling crap and thinking they’re not good enough. And this feeds into the real problem, the real barrier certainly in London, which will be wealth. That will shape what identity you can take on – and that’s deeply sad.
How many of the kids here in Hackney, for example, where we are today, see the opportunities available to them in the arts, or as a writer?
I think opportunities in the arts are quite scarce anyway. I think there are more people reaching out now, but the problem is still economic, and it’s like that in the publishing industry as well.
There are lots of schemes to diversify, but writing pays nothing! If you’re a young person and you don’t come from an affluent family, say you’re a young mother or a young father – you can’t be a writer, you can’t be an editor! You can’t do any of that. How would you get into acting? You need to go out and earn.
There’s a scheme from the National Theatre specifically reaching out to women and people from black minority backgrounds, offering a 10-week course, three hours a week. The Barbican are doing something similar. But you need to be in those networks to take advantage, and that’s about social capital. I just seems that everything is geared against young people. And I know that there are some schemes coming through, but again you need to know about them, you need to be confident, you need someone to champion you.
Do you think this young adult generation that you’re writing for will grow up still having to deal with issues around race?
Sometimes people become more reactionary. London's demographic will change anyway because no young people will be able to afford to live here. There's less social housing and cheap rent is non-existent; I think young people are more global now, maybe they’ll all go to Berlin if they’re still allowed to go there - or somewhere further afield. And also people are sick of sitting around waiting for people to do stuff and so do it themselves.
Perhaps London and the rest of the country are currently having two different conversations but I’m not sure how long that will last because most people can’t afford to live here any more! A lot of friends have moved to Hastings, Margate, or Bristol.
I’m not an optimist, believe me, but I think young people will challenge a lot of the xenophobia we’ve seen recently.