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Malorie Blackman: ‘Don’t apologise to anyone for living, or being’

09 Aug 2019

Photography by Ejatu Shaw

Malorie Blackman has a bad cold and is almost – but not quite – voiceless when we meet at h Club, a private members’ club in the heart of Covent Garden. She apologises for her huskiness, requests a lemon tea for her sore throat, and in an apparent role-reversal repeatedly asks how I am doing. When our photographer Ejatu Shaw arrives, Malorie is similarly inquisitive, enquiring about her career as she has her photo taken, asking Ejatu how she got started in photography. It’s clear that Malorie’s genuine interest in people, and their stories, has no doubt aided her longevity as one of the UK’s most successful authors.

Her incredible contribution to children’s literature gained her an OBE in 2010, and from 2013-2015 she also held the position of Britain’s children’s laureate. Crossfire, her latest installment from the legendary Noughts & Crosses series for young adults, hits shelves yesterday (8 August) and is Malorie’s 70th book. The first Noughts & Crosses book was recently adapted for an action-packed theatre production at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, while the TV version will be hitting our screens on BBC One soon. Music will come via Roc Nation and Stormzy is set to feature in one of the episodes, something Malorie still can’t quite believe. “He was so complimentary about my books, and I met him and thought ‘that’s so kind, but oh my god it’s Stormzy!” she laughs.

The 57-year-old’s latest novel, Crossfire, is set several years after the end of Double Cross, the fourth installment in the series. It features many familiar characters: Sephy, the privileged Cross whose forbidden love affair with a Nought resulted in family fallouts, tragedy. And, their now-adult daughter Callie-Rose. As well as the relationship – and rivalry – between two new teenage characters, Libby and Troy. Malorie was adamant the interactions between the central characters should be the driving force of the book. “Friendships and relationships are very important in my book, they can make or break a character, and even if you aren’t sympathetic to what they are going through, I want to follow their journey,” she explains.

But Crossfire is also what Malorie calls “her book about ambition”. It tackles themes around student activism – something Malorie believes this generation to be brilliant at. “People say today’s teens aren’t interested in politics but they are.” When I ask how today’s activism compares to her youth, she is quick to draw parallels. “Extreme times call for extreme measures. Each generation reacts to what is important to them, and today’s young people are standing up to race-hate, transphobia etc. In my generation, we were taking a stand on civil rights.” She goes on to recall, as a child, witnessing the National Front marching through Lewisham. “The attitude back then was ‘we will not let them pass’. We were very much standing up to them. And it’s the same today. We have to do that any time we encounter fascism.”

Crossfire draws many parallels with the political climate in which we live, and is inspired by current events. Malorie explains: “I wanted to highlight the things people will do to get to the top, the people they will walk over,” Malorie says. With Trump, Brexit and the rise of the far right, we’re living in really scary times right now,” she says. “People are bending over backwards to excuse Trump’s rhetoric and it’s like, let’s call it for what it is: out and out racism. It’s even more important to have diverse voices in film and TV and books and music, addressing these things.” 

“I received 82 rejection letters from publishers. Around the 65th, 70th one, I thought am I wasting my time?”

Malorie Blackman

As one of Britain’s most esteemed authors, who writes about race relations, Malorie is certainly plugging that gap. She’s also holding the door open for a new generation. In her spare time, she goes into schools to inspire students to take an interest in literature. “I want them to see me and think, ‘she can do it and she’s not all that – that means so can I’,” she laughs.

Her tutelage also extends to her daughter, who lives with Malorie and her husband, in south London. “I say to her, don’t apologise to anyone for living, for being. It’s so important that we make our voices heard, that we don’t retreat from that and that we don’t completely change our vision to suit other people because that’s our strength”. But it took her a long time to feel that way in her own journey.

Growing up in Beckenham and Lewisham, Malorie was discouraged from pursuing a career as an English teacher at school, and ended up working in systems programming – something she “hated”. She explains that a lack of black representation in the arts influenced her early career trajectory. “It never occurred to me that I could be a writer. I told my mum and she said: ‘are you sure?’. And I didn’t read a book by a black author until I was 21.” It was The Colour Purple by Alice Walker. 

After leaving university, Malorie began what she called “her second education”, sourcing literature by black authors and history books showcasing the achievements of people of colour. “I was seeking to educate myself,” she recalls. “I found a black book shop in Islington and they got all my money! I was learning about Mary Seacole, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Rosa Parks and black pioneers of the medical world. People of colour have been here since the Roman Times, and I believe black history should be incorporated throughout the year not just one month.”

Photography by Ejatu Shaw

Later, with the help of a supportive partner, she took a year out and began to try and crack the professional writing world. “I received 82 rejection letters from publishers,” Malorie says, stifling a cough. “Around the 65th, 70th one, I thought am I wasting my time? But even if I hadn’t got anywhere, I would have still continued to write. I would have moved back home to live with my mum. I had to take that time out to try and make a go of it.”

But even after her first book deal, Malorie suffered repeated rejection and dismissal, and success was steady but slow. She points out that within each series she would have multiple publishers, because often, they wouldn’t commit to signing more than one book until they’d seen solid sales. Then, there was the tokenism. “One editor who wanted one of my books called me and said it was because they needed a text for their ‘multicultural list’,” Malorie recalls. “She’d made an offer but I thought: if that’s why you’re publishing my book, then it’s a hard, hard pass. To say we need your book for this list, or that reason, it’s like – well do you like my writing for god’s sake?”

The award-winning author is full of depressingly similar examples of box-ticking and discrimination. The “look of shock” on an editor’s face when they finally met and she realised Malorie was black, the time a publisher asked her to change the race of her book’s protagonist: “They said: ‘Do you mind if we make them white? We already have a book that features a black family’”. In another incident, Malorie recalls how a black friend of hers was refused a book deal on the grounds that “they already had something by Malorie Blackman”.

“Extreme times call for extreme measures”

Malorie Blackman

Although Malorie is perhaps most famous for depicting the segregated world of the white, inferior Noughts, and the powerful brown-skinned Crosses, Noughts & Crosses, which published in 2001 and was her 50th novel, was the first time she had written about race.

“I’ve always made a political statement with my books, whether that was putting black faces on my covers, or featuring black protagonists. But people kept asking, ‘when are you going to tackle race?’ and I have always kicked against being boxed,” she laughs.

Malorie was inspired to finally tackle the subject after watching a harrowing documentary on the murder of Stephen Lawrence (“I was so angry”). She also wanted to use it as an outlet for her own experiences of enduring racism whilst growing up. 

“I was spat at when I was five, I was told to go back to where I came from, I was barged off the pavement. When I was writing, all those feelings and emotions came back up again. I remember the first time I travelled first-class on a train and I was accused of stealing a ticket, so I put that in a book. The time I asked my teacher about black achievers and scientists and she told me there weren’t any – that went into Noughts and Crosses.”

Despite her legendary success to date, Malorie sometimes still struggles with believing she’s good enough. “I still suffer badly from imposter syndrome. I didn’t realise how badly until I was invited to the Power List,” she says referring to the Powerful Media’s annual Powerlist of 2013 – a celebration of the UK’s most influential black figures. She won, but says that she still thought: “Why would they be inviting me?” By her own admission, it’s taken a while for her to be unapologetic with her work. “As women and as black women, we’re often not encouraged to claim our space”. She starts shaking her head as she sips her tea.

“It took me longer than it should have, to think, yes I deserve to be here.”  At this point, she erupts into a coughing fit, apologising profusely once again. She may have temporarily lost her voice, but that certainly won’t stop Malorie from getting her message heard.