Peter Akinti Interview

By Marsha Gosho Oakes

The former Editor of quality London-based men’s magazine Untold, Peter Akinti has migrated to the nearby land of novels. His debut, Forest Gate, was published this Spring. “A profoundly affecting novel that forces the reader to connect, on a very personal level, with the stories behind the headlines, it is a coming-of-age story which finds hope in the midst of modern London’s urban deprivation,” say the PR. You know what? We totally agree. How often does that happen?

…about the book’s concept….

Immediately on finishing reading, SoulCulture got on the phone to the journalist-turned-author to explore his experience of growing up in East London, which inspired him to write the novel – and his reflections since leaving London permanently two years ago to live in New York with his wife and their new baby son.

“London is the worst, if you ask me,” he says sincerely. “I like it and stuff but it’s not the best, not right now. Black men and careers in London, I don’t think they mix. I don’t think we do well there. I mean that across the board, I know it’s horrible speaking generally but it’s really hard there with the whole race thing in your face but not in your face. It’s really weird for me.

“I’m not just saying it. I think that especially coming from East London and not having wealthy parents and not wanting to sit in an office and do that whole grind, you have a dream and want to do stuff. Being in London for men – black men – is like playing with your life. I would never, never, never, never dream of doing that again.

“When I talk about suicide in that book I’m not joking – that happened to a friend of mine, two people I know have killed themselves and lots of people just go down. You look around and say ‘what happened?’ and they’re in prison or they’re…. you know, to me it’s very depressing and it almost took me down.”

The book contains an amount of graphic violent and sexual content, all vividly described to illustrate the experiences and psychological make-up of its characters. In this interview we touch on whether the extreme scenes are constructed and exaggerated or based on reality, what the acts say about the plights of the novel’s characters, and being told to ‘tone it down’.

SoulCulture: The book contains a lot of difficult but compelling chapters vividly describing sexual abuse and violence. Was this a realistic representation of their stories or extreme content needed to make a certain point?

Peter Akinti: Some of it is definitely to make a point. There’s a point where two boys get stopped and searched by the police and someone asked me what I thought about stop-and-search. They thought it was me trying to say something about stop and search but it wasn’t, it was much more to do with an experience I had with my niece.

One of her friends got involved in something crazy and I took her to the police station and I took a statement and they were really rough with her, and when she came out I said ‘what did you think of that?’ and she said she never wanted to do anything like that again, it felt like abuse. And that struck me. That’s where it came from, that first one.

So a lot of the things that happened aren’t me trying to be clever; a lot of these things really happened. A friend of mine had a younger brother who jumped off a tower block in East London and that’s where that came from. I just wanted to show that’s how a lot of people feel once they’ve had that experience, especially the Metropolitan police – they’re really rough with young, black people.

SoulCulture: So it’s metaphorical?

Peter Akinti: Yes.

SoulCulture: Like what they did in the movie Crash…

Peter Akinti: Yes, they really took it there with Crash. With the rape of the dead guy I wanted to show the person who had died by jumping off the roof, that he was really troubled. In London at the moment there are a lot of asylum seekers.

SoulCulture: How much of the book’s content is research and how much is reality?

Peter Akinti: There’s a hell of a lot of research that goes into it, and not all of it, strangely, goes into the book. It’s my first published book but it’s not the first book that I’ve written. I remember when I first started writing novels, I thought in order to make your characters real you had to put everything you’ve learnt into your book… A lot of research wasn’t used in the end but I do feel better for having done it.

I was reading about gangs in Somalia and I read somewhere about the blades they put in their mouths – and I thought that was crazy. So I took that straight out of there and said ‘my character’s gonna do that.’ It’s me trying to make this character real and believable and I wanted to make it violent because I think that a lot of the stuff that goes on in London inner cities… there is this real threat of violence.

People that get involved in it, people like me, when you do get into drama with someone you can’t go to the police, you can’t tell your parents, you’re kind of on your own.

SoulCulture: Is it based in London because of your knowledge about it or are you making a point about East London?

No it’s because I’m from east London. When I started writing I felt like I was carrying a lot of stuff in my mind and I wanted to get it off my chest. I’m a journalist by trade and the stuff that I was writing I couldn’t give it to anyone because places like the Guardian or The Times or the literary magazines I was trying to write for, they were always like, ‘Yeah we like what you’re writing but can you tone it down a little bit’. So I had a lot of stuff that I wanted to say with no way of getting it out, and this is how I managed to do it.

SoulCulture: How did you find writing from a female protagonist’s perspective?

Peter Akinti: Thinking about it was more difficult than actually doing it… It freed me up a lot more.

I started with James. James was gonna be my protagonist but then I thought that’s gonna be really easy… when I started thinking about introducing a woman to the book I wrote a page of background about her and for the next week or so I couldn’t stop writing in her voice. It turned out that it sounded a lot better if I could write as a woman.

When I gave it to people to read, they said it sounded much better coming from her. A lot of people don’t like, that whole slavery, black guys moaning on about race and social justice, it gets their back up. Right from the off.

I read a lot of state of the nation novels that tell a story of a particular time, James Baldwin type books, and I’m not just talking about the black writers either. I wanted to write something about east London, about a british black character that other people no matter where they live can relate to.

SoulCulture: Did you have an overall point you were trying to make with the book?

Peter Akinti: Not one thing. There were so many things. There is something about trying to humanise young black men. Certain areas come with a lot of baggage and if you live in a certain area you might feel you have to act in a certain way.

I’ve grown up with a lot of people who live off crime and I’ve always resisted getting involved, and it is tough, but I’ve never wanted to get into trouble. But when you meet people years later when you say you grew up in a certain area they kind of feel like they know you. It can be so so so wrong.

SoulCulture: Were you trying to highlight any particular stereotypes?

Peter Akinti: That we’re all the same.

A lot of people put a lot of pressure on books like this. I’m trying to write a novel first of all, and I do want to take on some things but I don’t wanna take on everything – and I can’t put every character in there. I think that’s the problem, people just go ‘why’s there a drug dealer in there, and if there’s a drug dealer then I kinda know what this story’s gonna be about’ I don’t think you can put your finger automatically on what it’s going to be about.

If you have love you can stand a better chance if you’ve got love than if you don’t, that’s all I was saying. Here was two people that came together in a really awful situation, both of whom had come from really bad experience, and they were able to love each other. And I like the idea of that. It doesn’t mean that they lived happily ever after but it is nice to think that two young people who love each other with a little bit of money might be able to take on all the problems that come with growing up in an inner city, that was all. And being African.

There are differences within the [black] cultures at the moment, there’s a bit clash, and the difference in mentality between a Caribbean man who arrived in the early ‘60s and a 20 year old now. It’s two different ends of a very very long road and it can clash.

Sometimes these young guys are getting it from everywhere – they’re getting it from home, from brothers, mothers, fathers, but they’re also getting it from people on the street that look at them and know nothing about them but they’ve read The Evening Standard and they think they’re in a gang, blah blah blah, and that’s what I was trying to get at.

The novel Forest Gate is out now.