Friday, 24 September 2010

Nollywood Now! Film Festival

As a number of the African nations gear up for celebrations of 50 years of independence in the next few weeks, with the first being Nigeria on the 1 October, it is surprising to learn that this October also sees the first ever Nigerian film festival in the UK.  Entitled Nollywood Now! It takes place in Lewisham, London, from 6-12 October. Full details here: Nollywood Now!

If you don’t know anything about the Nigerian films or the film industry there – the third biggest in the world as it happens, producing over 1000 films a year for the home video market - then the launch event on Wednesday 6 October is the place to begin. This will be an introductory talk around the documentary film Nollywood Babylon, which is about the industry in Nigeria. The organisers have billed it as a great beginners guide.

If you prefer your words and pictures in book form - even about films… then check out South African Pieter Hugo’s book Nollywood, which is a series photographic portraits of Nigerian actors in costumes as they prepare for their starring roles in the latest films. The book includes a short story from the author Chris Abani and an essay about the Nigerian film industry and what Nigerians think about it by the writer and filmmaker Zina Saro Wiwa

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater



Alvin Ailey and Judith Jamieson, circa 1970
Invited by friends to attend one of the first Alvin Ailey dance performances of their 2010 UK tour, I thought that this would be a lovely treat for the eldest goddaughter (EG), as she has just arrived in London on a work placement for the third year of her dance degree.  EG was on the edge of her seat throughout the performances, quietly chanting ‘amazing’ or ‘beautiful’ as each display unfolded.  Thus if you get a chance to see any of these performances, at Sadler’s Wells to 25 September, or throughout the UK during October, you will not be disappointed. It’s a joyous delight from start to finish regardless of your knowledge of any of the technicalities of contemporary dance. It is pure enjoyment beautiful people expertly dancing wonderfully.

Formed in 1958 the Alvin Ailey dance group is one of the most important ambassadors for African-American performance culture. And so it is with rising excitement that the audience  - including the whole of the Brits school (the specialist performance academy that Adele and Amy Winehouse attended) awaits the start of the show.

The first dance is Suite Otis a tribute to the soul singer Otis Redding, who died tragically young in 1967.  Choreographed and first performed in 1971 the 6-song set leads the dancers to start with the more lyrical balletic end of the jazz dance repertoire. In the middle of this the livelier rhythms of I Can’t Turn You Loose and I Can’t Get No (Satisfaction) move to the dancers performing in duos in a style more reminiscent of the fun lindy hopping twirls and twists of the mid-60s, over the melancholy romantic words and voice of Otis. The set ends with one of Otis Redding’s most famous songs – Try a Little Tenderness where the message to the lover to look after his lady is beautifully evoked through the sinuous hand movements.

The second set is an all male performance called The Hunt (2010), and was created by Robert Battle, who becomes the artistic director of the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre group next July. The performance is an assured sequence of chases and chasing, is played out over strong percussion that at once hark to distant African jungles, while at the same time reminding one of lives lived out in the urban jungle of America’s biggest cities. The dancers perform in floor length black sarongs and turn in formations showing of flashes of the interior inlaid with red silk.  To echo EG – it’s at once both beautiful and amazing.

The 2009 Dancing Spirit is a tribute to all African dance, and to Judith Jamieson, the current world-renowned artistic director, who is responsible for putting the Alvin Ailey ensemble onto the solid financial footing that the group now enjoys. Dancing Spirit is also the title of her 1994 biography. The performance starts of quietly with individual contemporary balletic style performances and smoothly moves through a variety African, American and Afro-Brazilian style formations, movements and sounds. It is pure joie-de-vivre and elicited a standing ovation at this performance.

In/Side (2008) the only solo performance of the evening, is supremely danced by Samuel Lee Roberts, in what can only be described as dark chocolate coloured Calvin Klein’s but without the white strip. Roberts performs energetically and sinuously to Nina Simone singing Wild is the Wind, an intense love song that describes an absorbing yearning demand to be loved, knowing that the love may not last. Also choreographed by Robert Battle, it’s a sure sign that the Alvin Ailey dance group will be in gloriously ambitious hands for years to come. In the talk that Battle did after the show he spoke of his vision as ‘if the spirit moves you, you just to have to move’ this was in response to a questioner worrying about whether or not she’d correctly understood the dance narrative that the contemporary choreographer creates. Certainly, to paraphrase a line in Wild is the Wind Battle’s work most certainly embodies ‘dance is life itself.’

Judith Jamieson with Robert Battle
















The final performance is Revelations that Alvin Ailey himself choreographed in 1960. The group performs this classic sequence of faith and gospel style dances at each performance that they do and so is very much the bedrock of African-American contemporary dance. My favourite was Wade in the Water where the sequence begins with an altar created with ribbons, transforming into a procession to the undulating waves of blue ribbon streams, where the dancers recreate the moving scenes of a full on river baptism. Revelations ends with a the whole company dancing to Rocka my Soul in the Bosom of Abraham dressed in 19th century style sunshine yellow gowns and bonnets for the women and matching shirts and waistcoat for the men, it’s a joyful praise to the welcome of heaven. The dance is in the style of the huge dance scenes from the musicals of the 40s and 50s and at times feels like the best kind of line dance.

The review is also online for Lime Magazine - Alvin Ailey review.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Round-Up 13


On Black Sisters’ Street

A new paperback edition of Chika Unigwe’s book On Black Sisters’ Street  has been published by Vintage Books this week. It is a striking looking cover, but I prefer the original. I however totally agree with the Ali Smith quote that is on the cover: “This powerful book will leave you haunted.“  Read my interview with Chika here: interview.




Ben Okri – Inspired Speaker in Leeds

Booker Prize winning author, Ben Okri is the featured guest for 'An Inspired Talk', as part of the Creative Case Black British Perspectives programme and the last in the current Powerbrokers series, discussing issues around creativity and innovation in culture and the arts, particularly focusing on Black artists as leaders.

The event, at the City Inn Hotel, Granary Wharf, Leeds, will be on 21 September at 6pm for a 6.30m start, and will be chaired by BBC TV presenter, Brenda Emmanus. More information on the SableLitMag facebook page - SableLitMag Do note that the event is free, but you must rsvp as space is limited.


BBC Book Club

Radio 4’s Book for its Book Club November programme will be Blood River by Tim Butcher. The programme will be recorded on Monday 18 October at 5.45pm. Contact www.bbc.co.uk/radioarts/bookclub/ to reserve a place. The Book Club programme is usually aired on the first Sunday of each month at 4pm. Blood River is true story of Butcher’s journey retracing the footsteps of Stanley (of Livingstone fame) along the river Congo. He did this journey at a time when no other British person was travelling through the area because of the civil unrest. Butcher is a former Africa correspondent at the Daily Telegraph – the paper funded the trip. You will have guessed from reading this blog that I have a growing fascination on how some people write about the African nations. This one is both a travel book – of course, and a family memoir of the area. I have mixed feelings about it, and feel sure that I shall be reading it with trepidation.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration



The review of this book generated a heated largely off topic conversational thread on The Economist’s website recently. The book by Isabel Wilkerson tells of the 20th century story of the African-American movement from the former slave based south to the heavily industrialised cities of the northern states.  Wilkerson worked on this book for over 10-years and carried out 1,000s of interviews. Her device was to share the wider general story through the detailed true stories of three black families who ended up in different parts of the States.  I was pleased to see a passing reference to – The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and how it changed America by Nicholas Leman it’s a brilliant read. I don’t think that it was published in the UK, but copies are available – mostly from the US on Amazon.co.uk.

Here is the review of the Wilkerson book in The Economist, but I think if you are considering buying it, then you will get a better sense of what the book is really about from The New Yorker: review.




Faber Academy

The Faber Academy has launched it programme of writer development workshops and events for the autumn/winter season. It includes the Jamaican British author Andrea Stuart leading a course on Writing a Family History. The course takes place at the Faber offices, and begins on 20 January 2011.  It consists of 22-two hour sessions on Thursdays and 6 Saturday day-long workshops.  The course will take in effective research, finding an authorial voice, newspapers and periodicals and archives and much much more.  For more information: Writing Family History: the programme

Andrea Stuart is the author of Josephine: The Rose of Martinique (2004) about Napoleon Bonaparte’s famous lover who was from the tiny Caribbean island. Here is the review that appeared when the book was published: The Rose of Martinique review.

Andrea’s next book – Sugar in the Blood: one family’s history of slavery and Empire will be published in 2011. (Great title – not only does it capture the sugar that most black people in the Caribbean worked, it’s also the expression that is used today to describe diabetes, which so many suffer from in their later years – there, in the US and UK.

Book Review: Man Booker Prize 2010


It was such fantastic news to hear that Andrea Levy is on the shortlist for this years’ Man Booker prize with The Long Song. She is a brilliant writer and it is an important book. In all honesty I do not love it as much as I do Small Island, this I suspect is because Small Island is my immediate story – the one my Windrush generation parents and their friends talked about as I was growing up. While the subject of The Long Song is an echo in the background that most of us with a Caribbean heritage (especially in England?) usually have to piece together ourselves much later.  We are fortunate that we have Levy to set out the history or us in such a loving and informative way.

Even now, I think that some people have found the topic of the plantation life in Jamaica pre-and post- the ending of slavery, a difficult one to think about, and do not know how to approach it. Well read this book – it’s a good way in. I read it for book club (Black Reading Group) not long after it came out. The subsequent discussion was a joint one with the Afro-Caribbean Book Club. This meant that we discussed The Long Song in a multi-racial group that included white and Asian readers and not only the black African and Caribbean members who would usually be at the reading group meetings. So maybe it was not so surprising then we were made to understand that this book told a universal story since the caste system in India is equal to slavery and thus it was not a story worth telling. Well the answer is that this book’s universal story is that the way we treat one another has a direct impact on how people will feel and respond for generations. In the book people never really recover from the heartless attitudes that are wilfully and thoughtlessly considered their lot. I wish I’d thought of this answer in response to the point made at book club - but you know how it is - the words never quite come at the right time.

I understand that Levy wanted to show that horrible things did not happen all the time, and that years of harmony existed. I think that this does work well in the book. So there is romance, lust, parties, banter, jealousy and moments when a more relaxed, if not comfortable for all, life seems to exist.

The thing that I love most about Levy, is her use of language and turn of phrase, it is so perfect – particularly when replaying the voices of Jamaican’s in particular, but of all her characters in general.

Ezra was so surprised when, a few weeks later, he found a grinning massa Goodwin standing within his doorway, that he dropped the calabash he carried, which spilled the dirty water it held over the massa’s boot.
‘Ezra, Ezra do not worry yourself about that, for I have something important I wish to ask you.’ The massa began before saying, ‘Are you happy, boy?
Trick – this be a trick, Ezra thought, as the massa waited for his reply. Happy? Come, he had never heard that asked of him in the whole of his days and had no notion of what he should reply.
But the massa carried on. ‘Ezra, listen carefully to me,’ while leaning in close, like he had some secret for Ezra to learn. ‘Why do you not leave your provision lands and work just for me? I will pay you a good wage, better than any one in this parish. Enough for your rent, your food, and fine clothes for any wife you may wish to keep. You would want for nothing. And think, with that money upon your person, you would have not need to walk all the way to your lands, for you would have pennies enough. Imagine, you would not need to attend market every week – you could sleep in a hammock or go to church on a Sunday. And in the evenings you could have leisure to do whatever it is that you enjoy to do within the evenings. What do you think on that Ezra?’ 
Ezra recalled that he had replied only, ‘But me ground done feed me dis long time,’ before the massa Goodwin held up his hand to halt Ezra’s speech. He then stepped a pace back to call for Miss July.
And there was Ezra’s proof! For Ezra always believed that the massa Goodwin did not understand negro talk. In walked Miss July her face set with a house servant’s sneer, like some bad smell was distressing her nose. And the massa said, ‘Please say what you were saying again.’
So Ezra spoke that he did prefer to work upon his own grounds, for labour in the cane fields was hard and long, and yet he got no profit from the crop he planted, fed and cut. But the toil upon his grounds rewarded him with produce that was his to keep. The massa then turned to Miss July who repeated all that Ezra had just spoken, but with a bakkra’s exactness. And the massa’s eyes dimmed as he listened.
Then the massa began to say again what he had already said – about the hammock, the church, the pennies, and the fine clothes for a wife- but with his voice raised. Come, he ended with a cry of, ‘Savvy dat, boy?’ that was so loud it did wake his pickney that was bound across to Miss July’s breast. And as the pickney did holler, the massa did begin to cajole.
‘Well, boy, will you not do as I suggest? Will you? Say you will, and there will be an end to it. Come on Ezra, say you will work for me alone.”
And Ezra, trapped within his own hut by one ‘gwan high-high’ house servant, her bewailing pickney, and the massa’s persistence, soon realised that, no, he was not happy, he was not happy at all!

The one thing that I did not respond to is the humour, both in this book and in the discussions around this 2010 Man Booker list generally, where there is a view that the books are humorous – relative to previous years, is what I think they mean, as well as within each book. I did not feel the humour of The Long Song, there were wry light smile moments, as there are episodes that could be described as comic farce – as in the extract above, but for me the humiliating, heartbreaking and scary moments stood out far more than any of the funny ones. As I say this is an important book, beautifully written and I sincerely hope that it wins. I want more people to read this book, as I would like more people to properly understand this part of our (the British:West Indian) shared heritage.

Also on the shortlist is Damon Galgut’s In A Strange Room. This is the second time that the South African author has reached this stage of the Man Booker prize. I have just read In a Strange Room for my office book club, where it won through on a staff vote, but was not actually anyone’s first choice to read. The vote idea was a departure for this reading group, since our only rule is the peanut rule: that no selected read is more than 2.5 peanuts thick and then we generally easily agree a book to read after group discussion. 

I don’t get this book and have no idea how it has got this far in the Man Booker. Set in three parts: the follower, the lover and the guardian, these states are also the mindset and role of the main character. This person who might be the author himself – he’s called Damon too, travels about South Africa, Lesotho; through Malawi, Zambia, Kenya, to Tanzania; Greece, Switzerland and India. (Naturally on the dust cover the African nations don’t get a mention – it just says “Africa.”) In a Strange Room is supposed to be a travel book, it might be a memoir, and so it might be completely true, but it might be fiction. Some are saying that it should not be up for the Man Booker prize since it’s really a series of short stories – rather than a true full novel. I don’t mind that, I just wanted it to be an engrossing read, but If I had not been reading it for book club, I would have given up on it. It was tedious. For me it fails as a travel book, as I am none the wiser about the places visited – except to be reminded of the ones I had been too already. All the characters and experiences are unpleasant, difficult and awkward – generally all three at the same time.

You might be surprised that I think, as with Levy, that Galgut writes beautifully providing moments of such insightfulness:

‘He watches, but what he sees isn’t real to him. Too much travelling and placelessness have put him outside everything so that history happens elsewhere, it has nothing to do with him. He is only passing through. Maybe horror is felt more easily from home.’

Spoiler alert – recognising that I may be encouraging you to read this book, so skip this para if you think you might get it. The section that I thought was tremendously well told and did have me on tenterhooks, was the last section – The Guardian. Here Galgut is looking after a friend with serious clinical depression. After her suicide attempt he has to take care of her in an Indian hospital. Suicide is illegal and the local police wait for the patient to recover so that they can arrest her. Galgut just about survives through the kindness of strangers, only to have the friend succeed in the deed in when she’s back in South Africa. The stress and anxiety of this section is absolutely brilliant – exhaustingly so – it actually feels like a different book. Though it occurs to me, belatedly, that this might be deliberate since the character is supposed to be more mature and established than he was in the earlier sections.

I know that there are dim, bored relatively wealthy people moving about the world looking to lose or find themselves and not particularly interested in the places that they turn up in or the people they come across, as they believe themselves superior. Galgut evokes that meaninglessness state of ‘I could be anywhere’ along with the disdain for local people, really well. I, however am interested in places and people and would have liked to have finished the book feeling that I had an inkling of a place I’d not been to or that I understood (though not necessarily liked) these people a bit better. I shall be so disappointed if this book wins the Man Booker prize. Galgut is Coetzee-lite, I would rather that he won it for a third time than this– though of course, as you know, he (Coetzee) did not make the list this time.

I am surprised to find that I have read two books on the shortlist by this stage, and had a good look through another (Mr Muse has C by Tom McCarthy) – it’s a sheer fluke. For many years I avoided Booker prize lists and winners, because I pretty much found them unreadable. For example I am dismayed to see another Peter Carey on this years’ list – I gave my copy of Oscar and Lucinda away hardly opened! Also you’d disown me if I told you of a winner that I have had for decades but not (yet) read.  Details of all the entries can be found here: Man Booker prize.The 2010 winner of the  prize will be announced on 12 October.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Penguin’s Great Loves



Browsing through a local market yesterday, I decided to take closer look at a bookstall that I had not noticed before.  Guess what? They had another collection of the little Penguins that I mentioned last week: Penguin’s Great Ideas and Great Journeys.  This series is called Great Loves and were originally published in 2007.  Along with Tolstoy, Checkov, DH Lawrence and F Scott Fitzgerald – there is also Giovanni’s Room (1957) by James Baldwin.  I got it for £3, though I note that many of them are available on Amazon for a penny – not the Baldwin it is still at £1.25. Mr Muse said that I should get all of the books at that price, in order to have a complete collection, but I have enough books that I have not yet read!

I had not heard of this Baldwin novel before and look forward to reading it, but I really love the beautiful cover. In fact I think that the covers throughout the whole Penguin ‘Greats’ series are quite wonderful. 

Giovanni’s Room: Love can be dishonest When David meets the sensual Giovanni in a bohemian bar, he is swept into a passionate love affair. But his girlfriend’s return to Paris destroys everything. Unable to admit to the truth, David pretends the liaison never happened – while Giovanni’s life descends into tragedy.


Round-Up 12

Guardian First Book Award

Congratulations to Nadifa Mohamed who is on the longlist of the Guardian’s First Book Award with Black Mamba Boy. Already the holder of the Betty Trask Award 2010, it is Nadifa’s story of her father’s travels from Somalia across north Africa to Britain during the second world war. Listen to Nadifa talk about her book on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour back in January – Listen Again.  Here is the full Guardian First Book Award longlist.

Diana Evans’ reviews Of Beasts and Beings

This review appeared in the Guardian. The book by Zimbabwean writer Ian Holding, is his second. Set in modern day Zimbabwe after a major disaster that has left decaying bodies throughout the country, a group of people is desperately trying to get a pregnant woman to safety. The second storyline has a white teacher packing up to leave his homeland, where he has never felt at home. Diana does not think the novel wholly successful, but she does say ‘Despite its faults, this is a thought-provoking study of the dehumanising effects of racial violence and oppression.’  Diana (author of 26a and The Wonder) took part in the July Bookslam event and it is now available as a free podcast download – here.

Aminatta Forna reviews The Masque of Africa

After the Sunday Times review of the new VS Naipaul book a couple of weeks ago, in which the reviewer made it clear that he thought that the book was abhorrent – read about it here, Aminatta’s review appeared in The Observer last weekend (29 August). Headlined Travels with an angry old man, she believes that Naipaul sees things in Africa that others miss. She praises his prose style, and describes how he gets things, by stating that ‘…He is dry, often irked, sometimes enraged. He is quite rude. But he is also patient (not a trait often associated with him) engaged, funny, self-reflective and thoughtful.’ Overall Aminatta is most generous to Naipaul, she thinks that he explains and understands more of what Africa is like, than more ‘literal minded westerners’ so on his notification of the competing mosques and churches throughout many of the countries – she describes as ‘the battle for African minds and souls is still on.’  The only thing that Aminatta queries in the book is the lack of verification/evidence for the rituals performed using human body parts. She seems to be saying that Naipaul has been gullible in this regard, but that he’s not the only one who would be caught out like this, since that is how the witch doctors exert their power. Right at the end she admits that while ‘… he is a difficult, imperfect narrator who does not care to be liked, she liked him.’ Strange way to end a review, but it is good to see this book reviewed from someone who does actually know a little bit about Africa.

It seems, so far that, Aminatta is the only one who could see the good things in Naipaul’s new book. Elsewhere reviews have seen it as a lazily written work. Giles Foden in The Guardian, says ‘ Given the complexity and diversity of African magical belief, anthropologists are far better equipped to investigate it than novelists or travel writers. He goes on to describe how the book repeats itself in a number of places. Could have done with better editing then. In the Financial Times, Justin Cartwright, who is South African, feels that he might understand  what Naipaul is on about when he gets to South Africa, he is however disappointed and ends by saying ‘there is hardly a line in this section that isn’t utterly trivial.’

Read the reviews here: Aminatta Forna       Giles Foden       Justin Cartwright.

Coming to England by Floella Benjamin

Floella’s 1994 book Coming to England, about her journey from Trinidad to Britain in the 1960s, has been turned into a film and will be shown at Rich Mix on Thursday 7 October and Friday 7 October. It is s part of Rich Mix’s schools and colleges series and is targeted at Key Stage 2 - that is 7 to11 year olds. It is £4 per child and £1 per adult.  Floella will be leading a discussion at each of the screenings. How exciting is that, I can remember when she was pretty much the only black woman on British TV (Playschool) for year and years – all together now - it's through the round window!

Oll On Water by Helon Habila

Helon Hablia, The 2001 Caine Prize winner’s, latest book is just out in paperback. Oil on Water is about the oil war in the in Nigeria’s delta region. Describing it 'as a riff on on Conrad's Heart of Darkness', the reviewer in the FT, goes on ‘it repays close re-reading.’ Listen to Helon talk about his book in conversation with Aminatta Forna: Open Book 

Summertime by JM Coetzee

The celebrated writer and two-times winner of the Booker prize latest book has just been published in paperback – this too made the short list of the 2009 Booker. Summertime’s clever construction has Coetzee telling his own life story through a writer researching his life after he’s died, through a series of interviews and conversations with past loves and relatives.  Does that make it a biography or is it a memoir? The short review in the FT says that ‘…John’s weaknesses and inability to open up – to confess what is in his heart – is resonant of the denial and isolation of apartheid-era South Africa.’  It ends up by saying that the character (remember it the author himself they are talking about here) is struggling against the undertow of suspicion within South Africa’s claustrophobic coarse and macho society.’  

Film: For Coloured Girls who have considered Suicide

The film line-up for Ntozake Shange’s 1975 play has been announced. I read about it on Afrobella’s blog. Click through and read the piece by Thembi Ford that Afrobella highlights. I had not realised that Tyler Perry, the producer of the film Precious, was also doing For Coloured Girls. It seems that he is definitely on notice not to foul it up for those of us who really love this work. In regard to the line-up, my first thoughts are mmm… but I definitely will be going to see it when it shows in the UK.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Interview with Ken Howard

This is my book review of The Young Chieftain by Ken Howard that will appear in the September edition of Lime magazine. The interview with Ken follows on below.


The bright, fifteen year-old Jamie MacDoran is enjoying life in middle- class Los Angeles; he's one of the cool good-looking group, it's all basketball, skateboarding, music, the first sparkle of interest in girls and parents he's only just beginning to understand. Then in a moment his beloved father has gone, killed in an accident. Before he knows it Jamie’s on a remote Scottish Island immersed in the heritage and mysteries of his father's people. Jamie is mixed-race and he and his mother find themselves in the disintegrating ancestral castle home of his grandmother, who is none too pleased to see them. She prefers not to believe that these are her kith and kin.


What follows is an adventure, that takes in grief, honour, bloodlines, culture and belonging; sticking up for yourself and finding out who you can trust. There is also ancient magic, many secrets, and much suspense. Jamie after various skirmishes realises that he does have the skills and empathy to one day become the leader of his community. The Young Chieftain is an entertaining and well-observed coming of age story, with some fine Gaelic words that you will enjoy getting your tongue around. As for the island life, beautiful scenery and coastline - well it is the Caribbean without the sunny sunshine. This is a story for all ages.


The Young Chieftain is Tamarind's first full fiction novel for young adults, after many successful years of publishing multi-cultural picture books for children. This is a brilliant start.

Ø Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed Ken, it such a fun read, and I really think that this will be an enjoyable and memorable read for anyone of any age.

The Young Chieftain is a real adventure that can be read on so many levels. However, the first question I have to ask why did you decide that your lead character, the teenager Jamie MacDoran, would be mixed -race?

I had heard of a true story of an English boy who suddenly, on the death of his father, became potential heir to the Chieftaincy of a Scottish clan. I thought immediately how interesting it would be if the boy were dual heritage. Even better if the boy was a teenager living in America and therefore knew little about this part of his dad’s family history.

Yes, but why the specific distinction, when for example President Obama recognises that people will respond to and deal with him as a ‘black’ person?

His race isn’t really the focus of the story - we don’t mention this in the cover copy for this very reason. But I did want to create a dual heritage protagonist simply because there are few such characters in novels. It’s about visibility and acknowledging that heroes can be any colour, any background.

It’s interesting that while Jamie is mixed-race the whole story hangs on the issue of pure bloodlines and the requirement to take-up one’s inherited destiny. Have you considered how that issue (pure bloodlines) might be viewed by African-Caribbeans here in the UK or African-Americans in the US when the book is published there?

What I was trying to show, and hope I have in the conclusion of the book, was that regardless of race/bloodline Jamie’s rightful place was as the next Chieftain. I wanted readers, quite rightly, to question the notion of pure bloodlines. This is further highlighted in the book when it becomes clear that Hazel, a so-called pure bloodline, is not eligible to become chieftain because of her sex.

Did you seek authenticity checks on the black characters or any other character? And what kind of changes or examples did your trusted advisors suggest that you consider?

Yes, I had really valuable help from Diana Webb, a black high school teacher in California. It was important to me that I represented both black and Hispanic American characters truthfully, and Diana read all the early drafts and really helped me not only with attitudes and speech patterns but also the arcane technicalities of basketball! In addition both my editors at Tamarind ­– Verna Wilkins and Patsy Isles – are black. We had many discussions about how best to deal with the prejudice that is present in the book. On the one hand it exists and must be recognised. On the other, there was no need to reinforce this. Essentially the book is an engaging story about teenage leadership and that’s where the real focus lies. I hope we got the balance right.

Who did you base Jamie upon?


I wanted an unlikely hero – someone who has greatness thrust upon them. I know a lot of young people who are going through the trials of adolescence, wanting to amount to something special but without any clear idea of what that might be. There is huge pressure to conform and a fear of being ‘different’ – but of course it’s the individual differences that throw up our leaders. The extraordinary rise of Barack Obama to the Presidency exemplified to me, and so many others, the triumph of possibility – the ‘yes we can’ philosophy. I hope Jamie is Obama-like and that the book is about what we are and who we can become.

Have you discussed the book with black or mixed-race youngsters? How have they reacted to the book?

Yes. The ones I’ve discussed it with seem genuinely excited about the concept and are looking forward to publication. Several have told me that they don’t find many characters to identify with in their reading. Most heroes are white, which I find strange considering we live in such a multicultural society. Maybe we can continue to redress the balance?

What question has stumped you most so far about the book?

What made you decide to write a book?’ It is the same question that people asked me about song writing, or making films. Why do we do anything? Because we passionately want to, because, with some trepidation, we feel we have something to say, and because it’s more fun than playing bridge.

Who did you base Jamie’s mother upon? I envisaged a 21st century Clare Huxtable, (the mother in the Cosby Show) though I suppose many will see her as a Michelle Obama type?

I think writers often base mothers in their books upon their own, tremendously influential, parent. My mother had very much the same sort of outlook and spirit as Marcia. She had been a concert pianist, a marriage guidance counsellor, a magistrate and started the Adventure Playground movement in this country. She was warm and tough and nothing fazed her - yes, I guess much like Michelle Obama.

I particularly enjoyed that way that the highland culture of Scotland was made exotic, some would say ‘native’; who are the MacDoran’s and the clans you lovingly describe based upon?

Well, there isn’t an actual MacDoran clan, which is probably just as well since I don’t want be sliced by a claymore! But when I was at Edinburgh University I played guitar and sang with a fellow girl student. We secured a regular TV spot and used to be invited to various clan gatherings as cabaret. We’d perform in castles and great houses where guests wore kilts and highland dress and danced in formation or over swords. I loved the feeling of tradition and a culture handed down over the centuries. I was also very aware that I was in another country and often a strange land.

Which remote Island is it?

Doran doesn’t exist, but having travelled around the west coast of Scotland and many of the beautiful islands, it is an amalgam of all the wild and romantic places that I saw there. I have always loved islands and their feeling of independence and insularity – no arbitrary frontiers wiggling across a landscape.


Are the themes and characters – particularly the Scottish ones based on stories you heard as a child or as a youngster yourself?

I certainly read Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson as a child, as well as W.E. Johns and Enid Blyton (about who I later made a film). I have always liked child heroes, who are usually more grown-up and sensible than the adults! I had great fun working with Sue Townsend on our musical of Adrian Mole.

Do you envisage ‘Young Chieftain’ pilgrimages to that Scottish island? Do you think that they will relish the interest?

I’d be delighted if The Young Chieftain encouraged anyone to visit Scotland for the first time – particularly if they wanted to hike off the beaten track and see some of the more remote parts. I am confident that they would find the Scots welcoming and gracious.

I loved the use of the Gaelic language throughout the book, is this your original (heart) language or did you have to research it.

It’s not really Gaelic (which is still spoken in various parts and of course in Ireland too) but odd phrases and words that have survived into modern speech. Spending some years in Scotland at an impressionable age must have drilled them into my brain, since they seem to have surfaced effortlessly when I was writing. I love variations in language that confound the idea that we all speak the same tongue. It’s quite hard to put them down phonetically, however, and there are no strict rules for doing so.

Jamie’s grandmother Eleanor was certainly the most ‘bigoted’ throughout the book, though the thawing of her heart is one of the loveliest things. How did you conjure her up?

As I said before, I am attracted to the idea of change - that we all have the potential to become something or someone else. Eleanor is pretty intimidating, lonely and bitter and dragging herself around her crumbling castle. But she’s been hurt in life: by the departure of her son to America, the death of her husband and the erosion of her beloved clan. As a result she has retreated into a sort of suspended animation. Jamie arrives as an intrusion and an irritation and she hits out instinctively with hostility and prejudice. But, ironically, it is this most unlikely member of her kith and kin that will restore her to life.

Do you think that Macbeth is really relevant to today’s young people (outside of the high school curriculum or exam paper)?

Oh yes I do, which is why I introduced ‘the Scottish play’ into the story. Like all Shakespeare’s plays, it speaks across the centuries to successive generations, because its themes and characters are timeless. Do we not recognise greed, vaulting ambition in today’s society? The idea that you can grab something and hang the consequences? Bernie Madoff? Or the argument that the end justifies the means?

Why did you decide to write a book particularly for young people?

I have made a good many TV films for and about young people and of course the pop hits I wrote were aimed at a youth audience. I think that issues and problems are seen with greater clarity and pain when you’re young.


What do you think the reader will get from this book, that they would not get out of say a Harry Potter or a Twilight book?

What they will not get is vampires! I have nothing against the genre and I think Stephenie Meyer is extraordinary, but enough already.

What inspired you as a teenager?

The idea of mass communication. I was invited to the BBC TV studios as a young kid and was instantly hooked by the medium. I had an 8mm film camera when I was 13 and began making films. In a way everything I have done since has been about the same thing – coming up with ideas and reaching out to an (hopefully global) audience.


Since you have written a book for teenagers, what books did you read as a teenager yourself that you think are important?

The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, just about all of Graham Greene, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy, Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and many more.

Your career has grown from the production of films and TV programmes for young people, what plans do you have for the development of The Young Chieftain into another medium?

Actually it happened the other way around. I wrote the basic story of The Young Chieftain as a TV movie, and took it to Granada TV who in turn entered into co-production with Disney. We were well into pre-production when there was a call from Disney saying they had discovered a problem. They couldn’t have a parent dying. I was incredulous, saying ‘What about The Lion King and Bambi? Since the death of Jamie’s father was a pretty important part of the plot this rather torpedoed the project. I vowed then that I would turn it into a novel. Happily we are now in talks with BBC about bringing The Young Chieftain to the screen again. It would close the circle.

How would you encourage a young person to get started in a career such as yours?

I’m not sure I would encourage any youngster to emulate my disparate career! After all, I had just become a TV director at BBC when I wrote my first song, which became a number one hit. At the time BBC wouldn’t allow you to do any work outside the Corporation so it was composed under a pseudonym. When they found out, I was given the option to stop writing or to leave. I left, much to the horror of my parents who thought I was committing professional suicide. But somehow things worked out, there were lots more songs and a continuing association with the BBC.

So I guess I would say to any youngster starting out in the media – do your own thing and believe in it passionately and don’t let anyone talk you down. What do they know, anyhow?

What question should I have asked you and what is the answer?

Several people have asked me if there will be a sequel to The Young Chieftain. If it proves popular – you bet there will!

This interview is also going into Lime magazine’s October edition. (Lime – ‘to Lime’ or ‘Liming’ is to relax/hang out in Caribbean English.) It is a monthly arts and entertainment magazine; October is Black History month in the UK and so all interviewees are being asked the following question:

What does Black History month mean to you and is it still relevant?

It’s extremely relevant. All our histories are. But it’s important to celebrate the historical achievements of each race as well as learning lessons from the struggles they have encountered. We ignore them at our peril.

Ø This interview is also available on Random House Readers’ Place website.


Ø Order The Young Chieftain direct from the publisher Tamarind Books at http://www.tamarindbooks.co.uk/ for a 30% discount on the cover price of £5.99