Malorie Blackman: ‘Hope is the spark’
Malorie Blackman is used to staying hopeful. She remained so when she opened her 82nd rejection, before her first book, Not So Stupid!, was published in 1990. She did when she went into bookshops and found her books hidden away on the “multicultural” shelf; she’d simply pull them out and refile them under B. She felt it even when going into schools to a sea of white faces, where the librarian would say: “But you’re just writing for black children.”
The last 18 months, however, have been a significant challenge. Having been classed as extremely vulnerable due to a health condition, Blackman has been isolating for most of the pandemic – and it is clear that, as she puts it, she “loves a chat”. “It has been a very strange time,” she says. “I was getting government letters saying: ‘Don’t go out.’ I was trying to live as normal a life as possible, knowing full well it was extraordinary circumstances. But you do what you can, so I focused on my writing. Endgame was a good thing because it felt like I was doing something. I wasn’t saving lives, but I was doing something.”
What she was doing is probably the hardest thing an author can do: writing the ending. After 20 years, six books and three novellas, Noughts & Crosses, Blackman’s most famous series, is finished. It is set in Albion, an alternative Britain that was colonised by Africa, where the black population call themselves Crosses (as they are closer to God), while the white are Noughts (poorer, institutionally discriminated against). The first book, published in 2001, focuses on Persephone (Sephy) Hadley, the privileged Cross daughter of Albion’s home secretary, and Callum McGregor, the Nought son of the Hadleys’ housekeeper. Their romance is illicit and fraught: Sephy struggles to understand what Callum is facing in their deeply segregated world, while Callum comes to see violence as the only way to advance Nought rights.
In sequels Knife Edge and Checkmate, Sephy’s daughter with Callum, Callie Rose, becomes a teenager with more opportunities than her father. And Blackman thought that was the end – until she wrote Double Cross, in which Callie and her Nought friend Tobey are involved in a racialised gang war. Then came Trump and Brexit, which prompted her to write Crossfire (2019), in which Tobey becomes the first Nought prime minister. Now finally, this month, comes Endgame, with references to a pandemic and a Nought Lives Matter movement. “What was once maybe a trilogy has become nine books. My husband calls it the longest trilogy on the planet.” She smiles. “And that’s enough!”
Noughts & Crosses may be her best-known work, but Blackman has written more than 70 books. She is a Bafta winner, a former children’s laureate, the recipient of an OBE. Her influence is everywhere: “I’m Malorie Blackman the way I sell books,” Stormzy raps in his song “Superheroes”; “Look I’m just a writer from the ghetto like Malorie Blackman,” sings Tinie Tempah in “Written in the Stars”. The bestselling author Candice Carty-Williams also credits Blackman as an inspiration: “Noughts & Crosses emboldened me to write what I wanted, and not think about the consequences.”
But mention any of this to Blackman and she gets flustered. She’s just the nerd in the Doctor Who shirt, whose own daughter reacted to hearing Stormzy’s rap with: “Does he have any idea how uncool you are?” “I wear my geekiness proudly,” she says now, from her cosy attic, tugging on that shirt. (In the episode of Doctor Who that she co-wrote, the Doctor meets civil rights activist Rosa Parks.)
It is hard to think of a simpler or more brilliant premise to explain racism to children than Noughts & Crosses, or a more affecting story for those experiencing it. The first book made the BBC’s Big Read poll of the UK’s all-time favourite books, and was later named one of the best books of the 21st century by this paper. It has become a play and, recently, a BBC TV series (with a cameo from uberfan Stormzy).
In the world of Noughts & Crosses, racism is not “fixed” by putting black people in charge – it is simply inverted. This is what seems to unnerve some of her critics (the Daily Mail called the BBC show “naked race-baiting”): Albion is another version of the Britain we are living in now. “I’ve never described my books as dystopian,” Blackman says. “Would people call our world dystopian? Wherever you go in the world, there’s always one group looking down on another. Some people have asked me: ‘If black people were in charge, would the world really be like this?’ I don’t know. It might not be. But that’s a different story, that’s not mine.”
Blackman has already moved on to her next work: a memoir, her first nonfiction, which will be published by Stormzy’s Merky imprint. “I think every book I’ve written has been kind of an appraisal of myself,” she says. “Especially the YA. I think they reveal a lot about where my head is or where my heart is.”
Blackman was born in Clapham and grew up in Bromley, where she still lives with her husband Neil and adult daughter Elizabeth. She was one of five children; her father drove a bus and her mother worked in a pyjama factory. Both came to Britain as part of the Windrush generation from Barbados, which Blackman has visited. “It was lovely to go because it is where my parents are from. But I thought I’d feel like it was my home more than it did. It felt like a holiday destination.”
As a child, Blackman lived in her head. She was a daydreamer who loved the library for its warmth and quiet, and adored fairytales and myths, Star Trek and Doctor Who, even when her friends didn’t. “I was known as the weird one, the misfit, but that’s fine. I used to get told off for daydreaming so often, which is ironic, because that’s how I make my living!”
Her mother and father wanted her to experience all the advantages they never had; a quality she reflected in the characters of Callum and Sephy, who see their child Callie as a symbol of Albion’s potential. “They pour all their hopes for the future into Callie, which is what I think my mum and dad did. Their thing was all about education, education, education. It was the key to open any door. And I still believe that. We wouldn’t be having this conversation if it hadn’t been for my love of books when I was a child.”
Blackman worries for her daughter’s generation. She received financial assistance that meant she could stay on in sixth form and attend college, but “my daughter certainly did not get any of that. I had two libraries within walking distance, now so many libraries are closing down. My daughter is going to be retiring at a much, much older age than I will. We’re supposed to be creating a better world for them and I think my generation failed. What kind of planet are we going to leave for our children, or their children? We can’t say they’ll clean up our mess. We have at least got to start cleaning it ourselves.”
Blackman wanted to be an English teacher, until her careers adviser told her: “Black people don’t become teachers.” She encountered her first black character in literature (Othello) while doing her A-levels. (She would later retell the story of Othello in space for her 2016 novel Chasing the Stars.) She read her first book by a black author at 21 (The Color Purple by Alice Walker). It was in the 1980s, while working in computing in London, that she decided to write.
“There was such a dearth of books that featured black characters – I could either whinge about it or do something about it. Toni Morrison said that if there’s a book you want to read, and you can’t find it, then you must write it yourself. I took that to heart. And if you hope things can be better, that’s when you try and make things better. Hope is the spark.”
Later, she brings up another Morrison quote, one that featured on placards at Black Lives Matter protests last year: “The very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” It has been said that Blackman didn’t write about racism until her 50th book, Noughts & Crosses. But she doesn’t see it that way. “I was being criticised from my very first book for not writing about racism. But as far as I was concerned, my characters were black, I had black children on the covers – I was writing about racism,” she says. “I’ve had good friends tell me I could have sold a lot more books if I put white people on the covers, but that was never gonna happen. And I thought that because I had all these other books behind me, I wouldn’t be called an ‘issues writer’. Of course, people always call me that now, for God’s sake!”
Though she had written so many books by that point, including bestsellers Hacker, Pig Heart Boy and Whizziwig!, she realised that she had been accumulating details for Noughts & Crosses her whole life. The observation that no plasters matched her black skin. Being told to go back to where she came from as a child and innocently wondering, “Clapham?” Getting sent out of class the first time she wore her hair loose in an afro. Being accused of stealing a train ticket by the conductor because she was in first class. Asking her history teacher why she never mentioned black scientists and inventors and being told that there were none. Her careers adviser’s fateful comment.
She is grateful now that she started writing young, when she had the energy to keep going despite the rejections from publishers, booksellers, librarians. “Why does it never work the other way?” she asks, of the librarian who thought she wrote only for black children. “Was she saying all the books I read as a child were for white people because they featured white people? A bookseller once said to me: ‘Oh, we don’t stock those books because we don’t have a big multicultural population around here.’ Yeah, you don’t have a hobbit population around here but you’ve still got Lord of the Rings!”
In 2013 she became the UK’s eighth children’s laureate and immediately made headlines with a campaign to improve diversity in children’s books. Sky News reported her comments under the inaccurate headline “Children’s books ‘have too many white faces’” and Blackman was bombarded with death threats against herself and her family. Sky later apologised, but the damage was done.
“I had people telling me to go back to where I came from, this is not your country. It was deeply unpleasant. Sometimes you can have some really interesting things, fun things, good things on social media. Other times, it has been a toxic bin fire. But so many authors and illustrators rallied around me. Even people I didn’t know were saying: ‘Listen, anything you need, I’m standing right next to you.’ It restored my faith in humanity a bit.”
It can get wearing, however. “Sometimes I just feel really tired. Because it does feel like you’re fighting the same battles over and over. I’m in my late 50s and I’m still having the same conversations I had in my teens and 20s. How much patience do you have to have?”
What she finds most bolstering is the occasional letter or email from a child who didn’t like reading until they picked up one of her books. “If I have any legacy at all, I’d love it to be that. If I have served any purpose on this planet, I think – I hope – it’s been to switch a few people on to reading and maybe even turn a few people into writers as well. That would be amazing. I hope I’ve done that.”
There’s that word again: hope. Blackman smiles. “Sometimes I feel like I’m holding on to hope for a better future by my fingernails. It is hard when it feels like we’re taking steps backwards – you have to trust that the overall momentum will be forward. Brexit was a step backwards for the country. Trump was definitely a step backward for the west. But when things are really dire, all you can hold on to is the hope that things will change. My books might not be happily-ever-after, but I do try for hopefully ever after.”
• Endgame is published by Penguin on 16 September (£7.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.