My Worlds, My Words With Patrice Lawrence
Farzana Hakim explores why staying true to both matters.
Recently, I stumbled on the golden chance to meet an author whose book, Orangeboy, I’d enjoyed with my sons a few years back. When something you read in the past remains with you years on, that’s saying something about the author’s power with words!
So, as soon as Patrice Lawrence appears on my screen for a conversation with me, the first thing I say after hello is “I read your book and loved it.” We start making small talk about our links to Hackney and I tell her that, like her protagonist, I also grew up in east London, with all my weekends as a teenager being spent helping out at my dad’s bright yellow, bustling supermarket on Mare Street in Hackney. The memory connects us and minutes into the interview, she feels like an old friend.
Through our merry giggles, I explain that our theme is centred around the idea of words and how we can use the words we write to educate, to include and to make change happen in the world. No one does this better than Patrice. In her books, she deftly explores themes of race and class and her characters come from marginalised, working-class, and minority backgrounds. In this way, she gives a voice to all the young people living in London.
Patrice was brought up in Sussex, not moving to London until her late 20s. She also shares that, for the first four years of her life, she was privately fostered by a white family in Brighton.
“I went back to my mum when I was four and the way we bonded was through stories. Having said that, all the books I read growing up were by white authors, usually dead white authors writing through Colonial times. What I observed up until my 30s was that people like me don’t write books and aren’t in books unless they’re a hideous stereotype. You know that internalisation that we aren’t in books? I’d absorbed this to such a degree that I always wrote white characters!”
Patrice shares how she wrote YA novel Orangeboy almost by accident. She’d been living in Hackney for 23 years, working for an organisation supporting Black and Asian parents going through social services. She’d had over 20 years of experience in the voluntary sector and, as a passionate advocate for social justice, wanted to bring some of this to life through Orangeboy.
“For me, it was like re-calibrating and thinking, actually, what do I really care about? I wanted to reclaim London. I was sick to the back teeth of the ‘Richard Curtis films’ version of London. As in, where everyone is white apart from one black man pushing brooms in Notting Hill Market. There, people like you and me don’t exist. That’s not the London I know.”
Talking of false perceptions, Patrice tells me that she hates the way working-class people are often demonised.
“I’m passionate about pushing through stereotypes and believe we can do that as writers.”
One of the reasons she refers to herself as an ‘Angry Writer’. Patrice expands on this.
“I’m angry about social injustice and I’m also angry about the lack of money and support for children in care, but we can use our words to try and talk about these broken systems.”
I agree. Storytelling gives us the freedom to write about things not openly spoken about. Patrice does this in Orangeboy; putting graphic references to drug use and death in the first few pages.
“I wanted to explore why a nice young person would pick up a knife. I was very conscious about not perpetuating stereotypes around black criminality, so I wrote Marlon very carefully, making him nerdy and a bit of a sci-fi fan who loved his father and had inherited his love for music.”
Patrice explains how she uses her characters to take her readers on a journey, their motivation often driven by her own life experiences.
She tells me that Marlon’s mum, for example, was inspired by her own mum who, years back, had put on a power suit to go into Patrice’s Sussex primary school to make sure the teachers and other parents were left in no doubt as to the racism her daughter was experiencing. It stopped!
“This happened in the ’70s. I started getting racist abuse from the age of four. So, don’t tell me kids don’t see race. They do! Still now, women of colour who want to be taken seriously have to moderate themselves in certain company. They have to put on a performance of ‘the angry woman’ and I wanted to give that performance to the mum.”
I tell Patrice about my ‘Hear My Voice’ Creative writing workshops for women, where I get to hear diverse stories, with participants really opening up about their experiences. Patrice agrees that the use of creative writing to break silences is empowering.
“I’m very open about my own life in my workshops.”
Patrice shares personal details about her father and how difficult it is to express grief, especially when there’s a stigma of, say, alcoholism attached. I can understand why her workshops often lead to young people coming up to tell her how much they appreciate this openness.
Here, Patrice gets up and quickly comes back with a copy of her latest book, Needle, published by dyslexia-friendly Barrington Stoke.
“It’s called Needle because the main character is knitting a sweater for her sister. Her foster mother’s brother unravels it and she stabs him in the web of his hand with her needle and everything escalates. Black girls are often not seen as children, but as adults. Needle looks at this.”
This leads us on to expectations. Those we have of ourselves, and those others foist upon us. I discover that, in her workshops, Patrice tells children she never thought she would be a writer.
“The writing you do at school to pass your exams is not creative writing. I don’t care about the spelling; that’s what technology is there for. We don’t speak grammatically correctly, so your characters don’t have to. I say: ‘You have brilliant imaginations, and you can create brilliant stories. Whether it’s a picture or a poem, you can do it! School takes your voice away from you.’ For me, it’s about giving power back to young people.”
I’m in complete agreement and talk about my own job: de-colonising the literacy curriculum in Barking and Dagenham, to make it more representative of our ethnically diverse school population. Patrice shares:
“The depressing thing for me is that the curriculum hasn’t changed since my day and when my daughter was doing her GCSE’S, it’s the same curriculum. I’m researching the Georgians at the moment. There were loads of black people and children around in Georgian London, but they’ve never made it into the books or schools.”
Moving on, I mention some Urdu words that I use to add spice to my writing. Patrice laughs when I say mandem and bredren; authentic words she has used in her books.
“Language binds people together and I love it when people tell stories. It’s almost like a performance.”
I laugh in wry recognition when Patrice shares her daughter’s recent comment that: “It’s not snogging any more; it’s lipsing.”
We spend a considerable time talking about the language in social media and both agree that the past couple of years have been tough, especially for Black and Asian people.
“Cancel culture gets me really angry… People who claim they are being cancelled have often said something offensive and harmful. And culture wars? ‘Wars’, are we fighting? I hate that!”
To lighten the mood, we chat about the MBE Prince Charles pinned to her dress just two weeks before. Patrice tells me that, despite initial qualms around the association to the Empire, she was proud to accept it.
“My black friends were like: ‘Oh, forget about that, Black people deserve something nice too!’’’
I totally agree. What an inspiring story, though? Somebody, please nominate me!
I have found real comfort in how closely our ideas are connected. It gives me the courage to ask for some parting words of wisdom. To contextualise, I share I feel underrepresented in a world where image matters more than the power of the words written.
Patrice reassures me that writing is never wasted, you can always reformat and reinvent it. An example of this is the Jhalak Prize, with many South Asian and Black writers on the shortlist. She also tells me that publishers, even if they won’t admit it, do see diverse writers as trends, and that it’s about waiting for it to come around again.
“A big part of it is about timing and pure luck. If I’d relied upon being published, I would never have written!”
I’ve learned so much over this last hour. I marvel at Patrice’s journey and how beautifully she speaks the truth. She is a writer on a mission, using words and creativity to educate and drive change.
I’ve always believed that the stories coming from our hearts are the most powerful ones. Patrice tells hers simply. She is not afraid of speaking the truth about the world she knows.
I admire her for that.
This interview can be found in issue 13, out on 29 June.
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I’m passionate about pushing through stereotypes and believe we can do that as writers.