14 April 2009

Book of the Week (9): "The Dirty South" by Alex Wheatle

First of all, this isn't a kids' book. It's not an easy book either. So, why am I recommending it here? Because I think that everyone over the age of about sixteen should read it! But WHY... well, because it's a coming-of-age story about the here-and-now, because it's about growing up in London, because it's about growing up in the hard-edged world of council estates where drugs and violence are a way of life, because it's about how gangs happen, and how tempting the easy money of crime can be for even the best brought-up kid. Oh, and because it's beautifully written and it gives true insight into the mind and morals of one young black man.

Dennis is OK. He's one of the better off kids on the estate, he has a family - one that's not on crack, skunk or addicted to drink. But he wants to be cool - and so he starts shoplifting. With his best friend Noel, he moves on to lifting high-end designer clothing from shops on Oxford Street, but that's not enough either. So they start dealing. Dennis wants to be a shotta, a dealer - a bad man. And that's exactly what he becomes. Over a period of about ten years he goes from nice boy to bad man - though never without the possibility of redemption. For Dennis that redemption comes in the form of a girl, Akeisha - beautiful, savvy and absolutely determined to escape the ghetto world she's grown up in. She sees something in Dennis that makes him worthwhile - the same something that we the readers are allowed to see.

But redemption is a long way away, and this book is about how even the kindest can become cruel. Along the way it's also about how West Indian and African second generation kids deal with expectations, how Islam is seen as the ultimate rebellion and how, in the real world (that world, the world happening in streets not that far away), life really isn't worth very much at all.

Recommended by Leonie Flynn

  • Well, there's not a lot that comes close, but other Alex Wheatle books are a must - try Island Song, about Jamaica and the lives of one couple, or East of Acre Lane about the Brixton riots.
  • Benjamin Zephaniah writes more teen-friendly books about growing up in London; try Teacher's Dead.
  • Or go and ask in your local bookshop for books by black writers. There aren't enough of them - but maybe if we make a point of asking for them then publishers will make more of a point of commissioning them!

There are various publishers in America who specialise in African-American books of all kinds, one good one is Amberbooks.com. Over here? Not so many. Via the Arcadia website you can find the books offered by Black Amber press (including Alex Wheatle's debut, Brixton Rock), and Serpent's Tail (who publish The Dirty South) have a pretty colour blind list here. The Willesden Bookshop specialises in multi-cultural children's books, and the Kilburn Bookshop has a good selection of modern black writing. The New Statesman has an interesting article on the issue of black writing and its availability. And don't forget to check out the Black History Month website, especially its links page.

If anyone knows of anything that should be added - just post!

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