Alex Wheatle and the Depiction of Care-Experienced Characters

Some years ago I discovered a wonderful book, The Seven Sisters (2002) renamed Home Boys (2018) by Alex Wheatle. The novel is about four friends in a children’s home who escape to a forest with devastating consequences. Alex has kindly agreed to take part by answering some questions about his care characters.

Alex Wheatle (MBE) is the author of nine novels. His recently published Young Adult novel, Crongton Knights has just been shortlisted for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize 2016. This was his second YA book, the first was Liccle Bit, both have received rave reviews. “Wise as well as witty, understanding rather than blinkered, [Liccle Bit] is a joy to read” (Independent). His first book, Brixton Rock (1999), tells the story of a 16-year old care leaver of mixed race, in 1980s Brixton. Its sequel, Brenton Brown, was published in 2011. In 2010, he wrote the one-man autobiographical performance, Uprising. Alex was awarded an MBE for services to literature in 2008.

1) When you first started writing, what made you choose to write about children in care and care leavers?

I chose to write about children in care and care leavers because that was my experience.  Through fiction, I wanted to give those troubled lives understanding and dignity.  I felt that friends, whom I grew up with and struggled through the care system, and indeed myself, deserved a presence in literature as much as anyone else.  Why not?  When I created Brenton Brown, I loaded him with all the anxieties, low esteem, vulnerability, bitterness, rejection, rage and flickering windows of hope that many care leavers suffer.

2) The Independent review of Brenton Brown says that ‘Brenton and his fellow-Brixtonians show that acts (however reckless) have multiple causes. But they also have “consequences” – of guilt, of hurt, of harm – that will “last a lifetime”.’ Do you think that it is Brenton’s ‘acts’ that affect his present or the past trauma of his childhood?

I strongly believe that any trauma anyone has suffered in childhood will affect their adult life, their decision making, how much they trust others, how they interact with friends and even influences relationships and marriages.  Although this predicament is not exclusive to care leavers, I do believe that a child denied love and affection, ala Brenton Brown, can render the victim emotionally volatile and unstable.  My job as a writer when I craft a Brenton Brown is to help the reader understand the complexities of the ‘unloved’, so even if you’re screaming at him because he’s made a wrong choice, you know why he made that decision.  This is why writers write and readers read – we all want to understand the intricacies and peculiarities of the people in our world.  My young world was populated with sufferers, the rejected and care leavers so I guess it was only natural that in much of my fiction, you will find an ‘outsider’ as the main protagonist.

3) Not only are your main characters care experienced but they are also characters of colour. Was this a conscious decision and if so why?

When I started writing Brixton Rock, it didn’t really occur to me that I was creating characters of colour.  Why should it?  I was just reflecting and leaning on my lived experience.  I’m sure when J.K. Rowling created Harry Potter, Hermione Granger and Ronald Weasley, she didn’t pause and say to herself ‘I’m creating white characters.’  She dreamed of characters that were real and special to her.  I grew up with white, brown and black kids and because we all resided in children’s homes, our feet weren’t even kicking the bottom rung of the social ladder – we were perceived below that.  So if there was a conscious decision in how I developed my characters, it was to give voice to those who are considered by some in society as bastard class.

4) Care leavers often feel they are stereotyped by their past. How aware of this were you whilst creating your characters?

I try and steer away from stereotyping the characters I create because we are all uniquely individual.  Even in a children’s home you will find kids who love football, sewing, drama, dancing, gardening, swimming, old Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin movies (I loved them!) and a vast range of activities and hobbies you might care to mention.  The problem has always been that care leavers and many working class children have never been exposed to the varieties of interests and pastimes that are on offer to wealthier children and their families.  For example, Victoria Beckham has positioned herself and made a career as a top fashion designer.  I’m sure she’s good at what she does but a care leaver, right now, might possess a similar talent as Mrs Beckham but will they ever gain the right connections or the opportunity to fulfil their potential?  Or indeed, learn to cope with whatever trauma and emotions that have burdened their lives to enable them to enter their chosen field.

5) What #diverse characters do you think are missing from literature?

In my genre, young adult fiction, I do believe that with the success of authors like Malorie Blackman and James Dawson, narratives are becoming more diverse.  I have been greatly encouraged travelling around the country and presenting my debut teen novel, Liccle Bit.  We still have a long way to go but I do believe it’ll only get better.  I like to think that at some point in the future, there will be such an invasion of diverse characters in fiction, the term will be redundant.

6) If you could recommend one #diverse book for your readers, what would it be?

This is such a difficult question because there are so many diverse books worthy of mention.

I’ve opted for Nadifa Mohamed’s The Orchard of Lost Souls. It’s probably the most moving book I have read in the last year or so and left me with such rich images of landscape and characters shaped by the ugliness of war. A remarkable novel.

Follow Alex on Twitter: @brixtonbard 

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