Alex Wheatle, Liccle Bit and Crongton Knights

Liccle Bit, the first of this series (trilogy?) was on the Carnegie nominee list this year, but never made it to the shortlist. Crongton Knights, I suspect, will be eligible next year, and I’ll be interested to see whether it is short (or long)-listed. It’s on the Guardian Children’s Fiction longlist–the shortlist is not out yet. (This is mostly a post about Crongton Knights.)

“Liccle Bit” is the nickname of teenaged Lemar, the second shortest boy in his class. His height, as his friends McKay and Jonah constantly remind him, is one reason he’s unlikely ever to be in a relationship with Venetia King, the hottest girl in school. Bit lives with his mother, grandmother, his sister Elaine and baby nephew Jerome; his mother’s the only member of the family with a job, and there isn’t much money for cool haircuts and the other minor luxuries that he thinks might make a popular girl notice him. As it happens, Venetia has noticed him; Bit is a talented artist with work in a forthcoming exhibition, and Venetia needs someone to draw a portrait of her. The two become friends, even as Bit learns that the portrait is to be a gift for Venetia’s boyfriend.

Meanwhile, Bit has gotten tangled up in events of which he really wants no part. Elaine’s ex boyfriend (and Jerome’s father) is local gang leader Manjaro. As a result, Manjaro knows Bit, and calls upon him to run various errands- and Bit is too afraid to say no. Things come to a head when he’s asked to conceal a gun for Manjaro for a few days.

If this feels rather heavy on character summary, it’s because characters and relationships were central to my experience of the book. Liccle Bit is fundamentally kind to its characters–it makes room for Bit’s mother’s anger at his father and his father’s current happy marriage, Manjaro’s ruthlessness and violence and the possibility that he might want to be a good dad, and even finds space for us to step back and notice Bit’s own biases. Everyone makes sense as a complex, real person (except perhaps the wise, kind grandmother; but presumably those do exist outside literary cliche).

I liked Liccle Bit, though I took a while to warm to it. Crongton Knights, though, I fell into straight away.

Crongton Knights is told from the perspective of Bit’s friend McKay, and is set a few months after the events of the earlier book. Life in Crongton has been tense ever since, though things are returning to normal. Venetia and Bit have continued to be friends, which is why when she breaks up with her boyfriend and discovers that he has pictures of her naked on his phone, she asks Bit for help. Venetia, Bit, McKay and Jonah, along with a couple of friends they’ve picked up on the way, have to make the long journey across Crongton to find Sergio, get hold of his phone, and delete the pictures, on the way becoming entangled with enemies of McKay’s brother, Nesta.

This is a quest narrative. For some reason, my Kindle edition of the book skipped straight to the prologue of the book and so I missed the map at the beginning on my first read though. But: there’s a map! There’s a small but determined fellowship of friends and allies, walking though dangerous territory to complete a quest, and there’s a map.

crong

Early in my first read through Crongton Knights, I was already aware that I had sunk comfortably into it much more quickly than with the earlier book. I assumed that my rapid involvement in the narrative was simply a byproduct of reading series fiction–that I recognised character and setting and was thus able to find my bearings immediately (pause to consider what it means that that metaphor is cartographical). That’s probably true, but it’s also true that I’ve grown up on fantasy quests. The shape of this story made sense to me in ways that Liccle Bit could not (and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that LB is drawing on genres and/or narrative traditions that I don’t know as well), even before I found the map.

It makes sense to McKay as well. McKay likes the Lord of the Rings movies and Arthuriana; it seems perfectly plausible that he’d conceive of  this mission as a heroic quest. Bit would not have told this story in this way. It’s hard to express why this is impressive writing without running the risk of sounding very trite (perhaps I am sounding very trite now); it’s to talk of the sort of fundamentals that surely we all take for granted by now (of course the shape of the story is a result of who’s supposed to be doing the telling) except that taking things for granted can mean not thinking about them at all, and they should be thought about. To shift between the rhythms of different genres with the same set of characters and relationships isn’t just a matter of skill (though it is skillful), it feels important to what the text does, and how it conceives of itself.

There are other reasons why I think this is great. One of them is purely personal–in the week before I read Crongton Knights I was in Dublin, doing some work with the Michael de Larrabeiti archives, and so ended up rereading large swathes of Across The Dark Metropolis, which is another beloved story about a band of loyal young heroes travelling across a dangerous London. After that, this book felt like coming home.

It also, I think, has something to do with language. Apparently Wheatle has invented much of the language used by the characters in the Crongton books, bringing together “elements of US Hip-Hop, Jamaican dancehall, old school reggae and every other sub-culture I thought could supplement my concoction.” I’m very obviously not in a position to suggest that the result feels “authentic”, whatever that would mean; Crongton is far enough from any of the cultures I inhabit that I’m not sure I can tell the South London bits from Wheatle’s additions. But I have, inevitably, been reading the books in the context of the discussions around e.E Charlton-Trujillo’s When We Was Fierce.

A couple of paragraphs above I mention fundamentals that too often are taken for granted in writing–perhaps the most basic of them is the idea that things can be represented in any meaningful way at all. To invent a fictional language (and I’m speaking here of languages that are supposed to feel “plausible” within their frames of reference; nonsense verse and deliberately silly dialects are doing other things entirely) is to suggest, implicitly, that languages are inventable; that this big, interconnected, evolving thing is actually basic enough that a convincing imitation can be produced in the head of just some guy. But fine, all representation is suspect, the word is not the thing, language is inherently reductive, life goes on.

In a recent article, Lili Loofbourow discusses the powerful and reductive nature of naming, before noting that:

We have shown the same proficiency when it comes to labeling behavioral patterns in minorities and members of other cultures. One of anthropology’s early problems as a field was the worrying ease with which white people could label behaviors and systems that weren’t their own. Ethnocentrism makes it simple to diagnose the peculiar habits of others while you, the implied (white male) observer, remain gloriously exempt. Science plays a huge and important role in the world, but the fantasy of scientific objectivity can bleed dangerously into other areas: that fantasy being that you, as the detached observer, are the one capable of universality, of transcendence. Of objectivity. Of naming.

It’s possible that I’m flattening the author’s point here in extending this from naming and the creation of particular vocabularies to all language ever (sorry Lili, if you read this), but it’s reasonable to suggest that, even if All Representation Is Suspect, questions of who gets to represent what and who gets to present what as real are tied to specific histories and power dynamics. One of the many good posts on When We Was Fierce is this one, by Jennifer Baker, which has a useful section on the ways in which Charlton-Trujillo’s constructed AAVE doesn’t work. Baker notes, crucially, that it is “perceived (and current reviews from White reviewers see it) as ‘real.’” Here, the power to simplify and misrepresent is inherently bound up in race*–the author, who is (afaik) not African-American, writes a book presenting a community in a particular way, and an overwhelmingly white publishing industry endorses it as Truth.

In the interview I link to above Wheatle places his own linguistic innovations in the same tradition as Tolkien’s, and I think that framing is important. Not only because it positions them as something akin to fantasy (and therefore frees them of some of that burden of representation, possibly? Though only if one came to the book as I did, after having read that interview), but that Tolkien’s labour in inventing languages, whatever one may think of the utility of such an exercise, is presented as Work. Whether you think of him as a philologist doing philologisty things or as a massive nerd wasting far too much time and energy on making stuff up, language is positioned as difficult, requiring effort, not just something you can casually create. Wheatle’s invocation of Tolkien, then, helps us to frame his books within that tradition of innovative language, rather than the one where creating “believable” dialogue can so easily lead to a mass of lazy stereotypes.

(On the other hand, one of the functions of secondary world fantasy of the sort Tolkien gave rise to is as an outlet for the sort of colonialist anthropology that deems Other societies and systems and languages eminently classifiable/categorisable; what does one do with that?

I’m not sure. But Crongton Knights has a character who “wrapped untold ice cubes in my flannel” and that “untold” is so good, and pleased me so much.)

 

 

* Whereas Wheatle is a Black British writer from South London, writing about black and brown kids in a fictional/ised South London.

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