With his new novel The Dirty South, Alex goes from strength to strength
It is often said that the best stories are borne out of our own personal experiences. Six books into his literary career and British-Caribbean author, Alex Wheatle, still finds this to be true. Initially starting out as a performance lyricist in the early Nineties (he was known as the Brixton Bard), the change from lyrics to storytelling was a natural progression. According to Alex: ‘My performances were all slices of life. It was all about taking something from reality and putting it on a page.’ Born in the Sixties, raised in a children’s home and being a young man in Brixton during the riots meant that Alex had a vast amount of material to work with. His first three novels, Brixton Rock, East of Acre Lane and Seven Sisters were all semi-biographical.
Interwoven with snapshots of other people’s realities, Alex’s prose resonates with his readers. His fifth novel Island Songs, a charming exploration of rejection through the lives of two Jamaican sisters in their native country and their journey to England, captures his style beautifully. Unsurprisingly, it was well received internationally, as well as nationally. He puts the success of his fifth novel down to its authenticity. ‘It is so important that you do not neglect the way the characters speak, by using their language you’re keeping their true identity. If I had dropped the patois, I would have lost half of the character,’ Alex explains.
Despite having his works published, the road to success was not always smooth. Much like the life and times of writers before him, he had received rejections and was once dropped by a well-known UK publisher. Still, after this initial setback and with the success of his fourth novel Checkers, co-written with Mark Parham, a new chapter in his life had started. With his latest offering The Dirty South, released earlier this year, Alex once again focuses on London. In it, the comfortable life of the protagonist Dennis Huggins is neatly juxtaposed with the hard-knock life of Brenton Brown, the main character from his earlier novel Brixton Rock; deftly dispelling the myth that one has to be poor to be involved in a life of crime.
Accepting an MBE award
Recently awarded an MBE for his contribution to literature and the community, his decision to accept it was not an easy one to make. Living in the Diaspora, the stain of the British Empire is a hard one to remove. For Alex, his acknowledgement of the past are his words: ‘My politics are in my work and if this means that more people read it – is that a bad thing?’ Currently working on his seventh book, a fantasy novel for teenagers, Alex tells me: ‘It is something completely different and is definitely a challenge.’ With Brixton Rock re-appearing as a theatre production at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in spring 2009, Alex is now busier than ever. . The Dirty South, Serpent’s Tail – available now
Words by Rachelle Hull, Photography by Jordan Roach