Malorie Blackman In Conversation
If you’re a Black Brit and haven’t read Noughts and Crosses you most definitely have heard of the book. The infamous trilogy falls under the fictional dystopian genre which has an alternative history of race and racism. In this book series, White people (Noughts) are second class citizens whereas Black people (Crosses) have the privilege. This book had a profound effect on not only my love for literature but the way I perceived race. I started reading the trilogy when I was around 11 and was automatically taken back by how incredible the story was. I’ll admit I didn’t know Sephy was Black until I read it for the second time (Don’t judge me). But that was a true testament to how conditioned I was to believe that those with privilege were White and why this story is so compelling. I ended up finishing the trilogy when I was 17 so to have another book in this series at the age of 23 is exciting, to say the least.
Seeing how in love I was (and still am) with the trilogy I made sure to attend this event, especially as Malorie was in discussion with Tobi Kyeremateng. If you’re familiar with the Black Ticket Project you should be aware of Tobi. She is an award-winning theatre producer who is continuously breaking the glass ceiling for Black people in the theatre. Having Tobi interview Malorie spoke to the way literature and the theatre world are changing.
When I walked into Queen Elizabeth Hall at the Southbank Centre I saw a diverse crowd of people. From young to old, white and black everyone was buzzing to see Malorie. Seeing how diverse the audience was dispelled the myth that Black authors can’t tell stories about race or racism for large audiences. The event started off with a reading by Paterson Joesph who plays Kamal Hadley in the BBC series of Noughts and Crosses. He goes on to read chapter 14 of Noughts and Crosses which featured Callum talking about his experiences of being a cross. This was a perfect way to start off the evening. For previous readers of the book, it reminded us why we fell in love with the story. For those who haven’t read the book, it gave a small yet significant snippet of what the trilogy is about.
After the reading was finished, Tobi and Malorie made their way to the stage and the discussion began. Tobi started off by saying she was “gassed” to be speaking to Blackman which I thought was brilliant. Throughout the discussion, there were various themes and topics that were explored. From the get-go, Malorie didn’t hold back as she shares her experiences of being a black writer and how Noughts and Crosses came about.
“From the time I started writing I was being criticised for not writing about racism. It was as if as a black writer that was the thing I was only allowed to write about.”
Though Blackman is predominantly known for Noughts and Crosses, this was her 50th book. Before the release of the trilogy, Malorie was known for books such as Pig-Heart Boy, Cloud Busting and Noble Conflict. ‘It was around the time of the Stephen Lawerence case and seeing the way the Lawerence family were treated made me so angry. I thought I want to write about racism and I want to write about slavery and the legacy of slavery”.
She also touched on her resilience and how hard it was to break into the publishing world. “When I knew I wanted to write I had friends and some family telling me I was wasting my time as they don’t publish Black people in this country and I’d never get published.” “It took 8 or 9 books sent out to publishers, over two years and over 82 rejection letters later before a publisher finally said yes.”
One of my favourite anecdotes from the discussion was Malorie meeting author Alice Walker. “Alice Walker came to London to promote her latest book and she was doing a signing. So I stood in the queue for two and a half hours and got to the front and asked, “Can you please write don’t give up” and she said, “I can’t write that, what does that mean?” And I said said “I want to be a writer but I keep getting so many rejection letters” and she looked at me and said “Don’t you dare give up” and she wrote it in my book. Before the talk came to a close we were joined by two of the actors in the BBC series who briefly spoke about their experiences shooting the series. Josh Dylan (who plays Jude) said whilst filming he felt that “It was such an emotional story and we all felt that on set. It felt much bigger and important so it was joyous.” After this, we saw a small snippet of the BBC series which looks so different from the book but from what I saw, it looks like it’s going to be excellent.
Finally, the evening ended with a book signing with Blackman. Though the first book was released in 2001, it’s still immensely popular today. There was a large crowd of children who attended the talk. Watching so many children there and asking questions reminds me of the power of books and the power of story-telling.
Whilst I was in the queue waiting to get my book signed I overheard a young black girl wanting to ask Malorie about character development and how she can improve her writing skills. Things like this are the reason why black storytellers are so important. Malorie has and is continuing to influence a generation of new black storytellers. I haven’t read Crossfire yet but I am beyond excited to read it.