Amid the brunchtime clatter of a busy south London cafe, Alex Wheatle is talking about how, lately, he has been considering 1970s pop culture and the way it has shaped and warped his perception of self. “I grew up with Tarzan on TV; Tarzan beating up all the black guys he came across and being able to talk to the animals while the black people couldn’t,” he says. “And I hate to admit it, but when I was 10 or 11, I actually cheered for Tarzan when he was fighting with a so-called ‘savage’. It was only later that I thought: ‘I think I’ve got that wrong.’”
In many ways, Wheatle’s 20-year writing career has been about correcting that wrong. Because if the focus of the author’s extraordinary early years was on mistruths around his heritage – about its history, its value, its implicit inferiority to a loin-clothed white saviour – then the intervening period has been all about creating the depictions of nuanced black heroism he was denied as a child.
He did it with Brixton Rock, the 1999 debut that introduced readers to troubled care-system kid Brenton Brown and the signature crackle of Wheatle’s streetwise prose. He did it with Crongton Knights, the 2016 Guardian children’s fiction prize winner that rendered council estate turf wars with wit, care and profundity. And now – in a landmark period of his career that happens to coincide with a Steve McQueen film about his life – he has done it again with Cane Warriors: a taut, urgent new young adult novel set within the real-life slave uprising that took place on a Jamaican plantation in 1760.
At first glance, the story – told through the eyes of Moa, a 14-year-old enlisted in a brutal rebellion led by a fellow slave known as Tacky – feels like a departure for Wheatle. “Back-ripper”-wielding overseers and rural cane fields are a world away from the modern, multicultural cityscapes and wry socio-realism that have long been his hallmark. But as Wheatle, now 57, sees it, Moa’s story tallies with his personal history. The first stirrings of his interest in writing came while he was serving a four-month prison sentence for his role in the 1981 Brixton riots, when his cellmate handed him a dog-eared copy of The Black Jacobins, CLR James’s seminal account of Toussaint L’Ouverture’s 18th-century slave revolt and the resultant Haitian revolution. “That changed everything for me,” he says, pouring more tea from his pot. “Because, up to that point, I’d only seen black people as victims or subservient. To actually read a text where there was an incredible black hero really opened up my eyes to the world. It led me to search for other black heroic texts, because I’d been denied them all those years. So I do feel, with Cane Warriors, that I’ve come full circle.”
Which is not to say that the book’s route to publication was straightforward – he tells me his “previous publishers weren’t too excited about Cane Warriors”. But Wheatle, who first learned about the bloody revolt on a trip to Jamaica with his father, would not be denied. And soon he was sifting through historical records that gave him the spine of a story. Hard facts were difficult to establish, he says. “But there was definitely a slave uprising that happened on Easter Sunday in 1760, started by this guy Tacky, who was rumoured to be an African prince. I knew that [the slaves] killed the overseers and the masters at the plantations, they marched to [coastal garrison] Fort Haldane, sacked that and got 40 guns and the gunpowder.”
As well as the unflinching, crisply relayed nature of its violence, one of the most striking things about Cane Warriors is the specificity of its language. Moa and his fellow slaves talk, in pungent patois, of falling “eye-water” and “bruk-outs”; of the will of West African Akan gods, where the tragedy of a fellow slave’s death is compounded by the hard work of having to dig their “pit”. Even with a necessarily limited descriptive palette, Wheatle paints with trademark vividness. And the inflection point between African and Caribbean cultures that Cane Warriors documents is wholly deliberate.
“On the first page, the difficulty for me was I had to make a decision about how my characters were going to speak,” he explains. “Were they going to speak in a Jamaican vernacular? Would that be influenced by something from Akan or Ghanaian culture? I had to make a choice and I thought, do you know what, aspects of the book need to show that they are a people who came from Ghana. I have to honour that. But in the everyday speech, I wanted to honour the Jamaicanness of them. I wanted the world to know that these characters, these warriors, these rebels, were Jamaican.”
In light of the debates around British historical figures with links to slavery, and amid calls to give Black British history a more meaningful place on the curriculum, Cane Warriors serves an especially resonant educational purpose in 2020. Again, this is by design. “It goes back to [Nigerian writer] Chinua Achebe saying that the lion never gets to tell the tale of the hunt,” Wheatle says. “I want to turn the eyes of young students to this part of British history that for me is so important and so necessary. Because we’re a diverse country now. And when I was at school, maybe my attention span wasn’t the best, but to a certain extent I got bored of Henry VIII and his six wives and agricultural crop rotation. I said, ‘Where am I in this? Where are all my ancestors?’”
In a forceful afterword, Wheatle makes the case for slavery reparations, citing the £20m reimbursement sum that was pledged to slave owners by the British government after slavery was made illegal in 1833. And, particularly after this summer of protest, Wheatle wants to explain the vital role slave rebellion leaders like Tacky played in clearing the path to abolition. “The slavers were losing money because of the revolts,” he says. “It disrupted them in a massive way, so I can imagine them thinking, ‘Is it really worth it?’ The uprisings had a massive impact. Cane Warriors hopefully helps address that. It wasn’t just some kindly white saviour in the House of Commons saying, ‘Slavery has got to end.’ It wasn’t ever as simple as that.”
It’s fair to say that Wheatle’s current standing – a quietly formidable authority on Black history, with an MBE awarded in 2008 for services to literature – stands in contrast to his early days. Wheatle’s Jamaican mother was already married with four children when she met his father in London; she returned home after Wheatle’s birth, while his father, a Jamaican-born teacher, struggled to cope as a single parent. Wheatle grew up in Shirley Oaks, a notorious Croydon children’s home; just this summer, an independent inquiry heard evidence of how its residents had endured sustained physical, sexual and racial abuse, with 48 deaths occurring over a 20-year period.
Wheatle has spoken previously of the dehumanising treatment he experienced there (in a 2014 newspaper column, he related that his first memories are of “getting beaten up with wooden hairbrushes, belts and hard-soled shoes”) and his personal history of care home trauma – and the salvation he later found as a teenager on the fringes of Brixton’s reggae sound system scene – reverberate throughout his work. Today, when asked how he has seemingly emerged unscathed from such a painful start, he notes that appearances can be deceiving.
“I have my flaws,” he says. “I have my nightmarish moments where sometimes my past comes back and hits me when I’m not expecting it. But that’s OK. It doesn’t make me weak. It makes me more empathetic with people who go through those experiences. And it helps my writing when I’m creating characters who experience stress and trauma.”
This winter more people will become acquainted with his story thanks to Small Axe, Steve McQueen’s blockbuster film anthology about the West Indian experience in the UK between the late 1960s and mid 1980s. Wheatle was already part of the writers’ room for the project in 2016 (“I’m not sure if Steve remembers how much I was shaking in the interview,” he laughs) when a story focused on “a young black man going through institutions” was suggested. “And one of the fellow writers said, ‘Alex, how about you?’ I was a bit overwhelmed, and then Steve said, ‘Alex are you holding out on me?’”
The next day he brought in copies of his case file from Lambeth council and, soon the film, titled Alex Wheatle, charting his journey from Shirley Oaks to the Brixton uprising, prison and beyond, was born. McQueen even offered him the opportunity to write it but, understandably, the author felt “too close to it”.
When we speak, Wheatle is yet to see a finished version of the film. But he had multiple meetings with Sheyi Cole, the actor playing his younger self (“I taught him how to skank, which I’m sure will be appearing on YouTube soon,” he jokes), visited the set and got to enjoy another full circle moment, courtesy of the fact that his son – one of his three adult children – worked on the Small Axe production design team. “He called me and said, ‘Dad, I’m prepping your bedroom for younger Alex, which is fucked up,’” says Wheatle, chuckling.
After some false dawns with adaptations of his books throughout his career (East of Acre Lane, which depicted the Brixton uprising, was optioned by the BBC in 2001), the experience on Small Axe has given him a taste for screenwriting and adaptation. “It’s something I want to develop slowly,” he says. “Because I loved the collaboration and I loved the writers’ room.”
For now, though, he’s waiting out the pandemic, pondering a possible move out of London and publishing another young adult novel: The Humiliations of Welton Blake, a ribald comedy of errors that bloomed directly from “needing to laugh” after Cane Warriors. This shouldn’t be construed as him being done with historical narratives however – long-held plans to write about “Caribbean migration to Panama and subsequently what happened with other slave revolts” are taking shape.
Does Wheatle feel any apprehension about telling slave stories that, by their very nature, necessitate a degree of black suffering, trauma and torture? “There was a certain hesitation because I kind of expected certain commentators to say, ‘Oh, do we have to face this again?’” he says. “But sometimes we have to bring it back to the birth of our pain. No one complains when someone comes up with another narrative of Queen Elizabeth I. No one complains when those tales are reprised and retold, so why does it make certain people feel uncomfortable when I write about what happened to my ancestors?” We have, thankfully, come a long way from Tarzan’s chest-beating colonialism. But Wheatle intends, with typical vigour and compassion, to remind us of how far we still have to go.
• Cane Warriors is published by Anderson Press (£10.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Small Axe: Alex Wheatle will be broadcast on BBC One on Sunday 6 December