A multi-award winning writer known as the ‘Brixton Bard’ is back with his latest teen novel inspired by his own experience of growing up in care.
Alex Wheatle MBE, 56, published Home Girl in April this year. It follows the story of Naomi, a young girl who is navigating her way through the British care system.
“I come from a care background which has informed three to four of my adult books. With Home Girl, I wanted to update that. Have a modern setting to explore how the care system works now and how it affects young people within it,” said Alex.
Brought up in care during the 1960s and 70s, Alex addressed many related themes in the book such as belonging, trauma and peer pressure.
Travelling around the world, and also working in the youth sector, has allowed Alex to interact with many children in care, as well as those who are carers for their parents; an aspect he also touches on in his latest work.
Alex said it helps develop three-dimensional characters but such children are often neglected and forgotten about, which makes it important to include them in current fiction.
He explained: “I think it’s important that we encourage more working-class writers to develop these kind of narratives and then I’m sure there’ll be more of them.”
He added: “There’s always been this story of the orphan. People sometimes forget Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker were orphans.
“We have many orphan narratives but we need more authentic, realistic working-class narratives.”
However, diversity in publishing is increasing as more emerging authors are given a chance to share their stories.
“Now for a young person, maybe of colour or LGBTQ, there’s much more available that can speak to any different group,” said Alex.
“You can go into a bookshop or look online and there’s a narrative that you can engage with or be familiar with. There’s a lot wider choice now. I look forward to seeing that choice ever widening.”
Does Alex think there’s hope for children in care today?
“It has improved over the years. In my day there wasn’t an understanding of the trauma that people had to go through. Young people are hopefully better treated for that trauma now but still there’s a way to go,” said Alex.
“Now more young people are suffering from stress with the invention of social media. And writers have to try and reflect that on the page. Adults sometimes forget what it’s like to be young with the issues and pressures they face. It’s not easy being young today.”
In his youth, Alex was also a DJ and later briefly imprisoned for his participation in the 1981 Brixton riots. However, despite his sometimes difficult past, Alex uses his writing as a way of reconciling with his childhood challenges.
He said: “I remember the emotions I had when I was younger. I remember the lowest I felt, the anger I felt, the times where I felt I couldn’t go on anymore and I bring those emotions to my characters. I find it cathartic because when I was a teenager, I didn’t have access to a psychiatrist to work these issues through. So without realising it, writing provided a healing balm for me. I’m still doing that even now.”
Alex is already working on his next book about a real slave revolt that occurred in Jamaica in the 18th century from the perspective of a 14-year-old boy. And it doesn’t look like he has any plans of stopping anytime soon.
“I’ve had a very colourful life with lots of ups and downs and harsh realities,” he said.
“There’s a well of experiences and I still feel I’m dipping into that well. There’s a lot I want to say and feel passionate about like child poverty, diversity, opportunities for people of colour and children’s homes. There’s a lot of need for me to pick up the pen and fill the pages with.”
Feature image copyright: Kim Gribbon.