Courttia describes himself as an Author, Screenwriter, Playwright, Creative Writing Tutor and Literary Activist. He was born on 25 August, 1973.
It is like I said something that I have always done. Coupled with that is the fact that I did not want to be a writer. I was really against it. I had a very traditional view of what being a writer meant and I didn’t like it. So I stayed away from it and I actually did every thing I could not to be a writer, which is the weird thing that I have ended up being anyway.
My mum always talks about how she’s got a picture of me three years old – reading. And that’s what I did. As soon as I could I taught myself to read apparently – that’s what my mum says – and from there I just read everything I could get my hands on . I just read, read, read. As someone who loves books and always has loved books up to this day, I still do love books. After that I got into writing as soon as possible. I used to write little short stories. I wrote my first serious piece of work when I was eleven, over a hundred pages! I mean it wasn’t serious in terms of the content but in terms of length. I just wanted to write a book. I thought it would be a fun thing to do. I didn’t want to be a novelist or anything like that. I just wanted to do that. I wanted to tell a story.
When I was really young I really wanted a walkman. Sony Walkmans were just coming out in a big way. I really wanted one and my dad didn’t want to buy me one for my birthday, but he ended up buying me a dictaphone. I used to record stories onto the dictaphone and sell them to other kids, the little tapes and stuff, even though they didn’t have a dictaphone.
How He Writes
I sit down with a computer, I don’t even do longhand or anything. I just told stories from a very, very early age and really got into that. Five, six, then at eleven I wrote that book. All the way through school I was writing little bits and pieces of different stories, linking them together like the story of one family. That’s it, just as long as I can remember, but not wanting to be a writer.
The reason I didn’t really want to be a writer was because I got into hip-hop in a big way. I wanted to be a rapper. I wanted to write songs and lyrics. With hop-hop one of the biggest things about it – people called it black people’s CNN – was that someone in LA could talk about what they were going through and what their life was like, not just about guns and crime, but anything that happened to them like going to the doctor when you’re ill, scenes like that. There was all sorts of stuff going on. They used to talk about crack a lot, but it was always from the point of view that “I’m trying to keep away” and “I told that person not to do it,” you know, bad stories about it, not like how it is today. And so I wanted to write a story that spoke about what it was like to be Black British, because I knew that a lot of people did not know there were even black people in Britain, especially in the States and Europe. I mean in Mexico this guy from Washington D.C. filmed us – he used to say, “where did you get those accents from?”
It intrigued them to think that there are black people in London, they don’t know about us. So I wanted to tell a story of some black British kids, what our life was like, all the language, all the slang, not hold anything back, so that there would be a document of that. As far as I was concerned it was always about the States, all the films I saw were about the States, all the stuff on TV was about the States. But we equally had something that was vibrant and interesting going on and no one was talking about it.
More so for theatre funnily enough; for theatre I’ve really got into the whole idea of social documentation. With the novels I’ve tried to move away from it a little bit, I’ve got into a more surreal edge where I’m combining the reality with almost wishful thinking in terms of what the story is like. But I wouldn’t shy away from it and I want to do a book – a novel – pretty soon which will deal more with the reality. If you do three books on reality, it’s like I want to try something different, so I’ve gone in a different vein. But I wouldn’t ever leave it behind.
I just want to keep myself interested, that’s what the main thing is. I mean the publishing industry here, unfortunately, they really don’t like any writer doing that, but especially a black writer. They feel that I should write urban fiction, and that’s it. As long as I set the story in an urban scene, they don’t really mind what kind of story it is, but as long as it’s urban, that’s it. Whereas I’m trying to step away from that a little.
Language plays a very big role in the first three novels I’ve written, definitely. It’s all about the language, it’s all about the way people talk, and that’s another thing that is not documented. I’m just happy that I can say that in 1997 The Scholar came out and there was a lot of language that people didn’t understand. And now in London at least people are now hearing a lot of people talk like that and are realising I didn’t make it up![Laughter]. I heard someone on children’s TV the other day talking about “buff” and saying “that man’s really buff” – and wow! Now it’s mainstream to talk like that, you know.
To me it’s got to be about London. That’s one thing, I wouldn’t say I’d never change, but I’ll be very wary to stray from that. It’s what I know, it’s what I want to talk about, it’s what I love – and hate at the same time.
Not that they didn’t focus on Black London, it’s just that they didn’t acknowledge Black London. That’s why I think they were failures. I don’t expect every book to be talking from a position of authority about Black culture, because I think they’d be failures in that sense. But take Martin Amis’s London Fields. I bought that, I read it, I took it back to the shop and got my money back! [Laughter] I’m sorry, because if you talk about Ladbroke Grove and there’s no black people in it apart from one guy who’s bred for fighting or whatever…
It’s just not good enough, it’s not an accurate representation of where I am and where I live. I just want people to get it right, that’s all. I’m not saying you can’t get it right if you’re white or you can’t get it right if you’re Asian. I just want people to have more stock in being authentic rather than giving what I see as a very middle-class view of what the place is like.
But I’m still disappointed, to be honest, I still think it’s largely a middle-class domain, literature in this country and theatre. Just because it’s black middle-class doesn’t make it any less middle-class. That’s how I feel about it.
On his Jamaican & Bajan heritage and being born in England
I see it as just that – my family roots. It’s where I come from, it influences me, it influences everything I do, it influences my perspective. I wouldn’t have that whole working-class, Black British perspective if it wasn’t for my Caribbean roots. I was steeped in that growing up. That was all I knew for a very long time. But it’s not me. I don’t claim to be Jamaican, I’m not one of those Black British people who say, “I’m a Jamaican” or whatever, even though my dad is and half of my family is. Half of my family is from Barbados. So I think, yes it’s my roots, definitely, that’s what it is. But me – I’m a Black British Londoner.
[It is] so common amongst us, who were born here.
You’re always told you’re West Indian, the whole society is saying “you’re West Indian, you’re West Indian.
That’s what you are, that’s how you talk, that’s how your hair is.” And then you go there, and they’re all saying “you’re English.” You walk down the road and they’ll be like “English boy”. And you say, “how’d you know?” My cousin’s in Barbados, she says to me “we smell you” [Laughter]. “You smell different.” Their roots are here and they’re just as much a Londoner as someone like Martin Amis and people like that.
I say Black British for want of a better term, because I’m comfortable with it, but I am aware like I said in the introduction to IC3 [ The Penguin Book of New Black Writing in Britain], it’s largely a political term. It can be used to refer to Asians, it can be used to refer to Japanese and Chinese on occasion, so it just means “not white” a lot of the time. I don’t think that’s what it truly should mean and does mean, but that is the way it’s used, so in that sense it’s ok until we find something that is more specific, that’s what I am. But I’m definitely not Afro-Caribbean.
On Stories Where The Location is London
I’d like to stake a claim for it as being as rich as any literature from England. Sam Selvon was a major influence on me just before I started to write The Scholar –just reading someone who wrote about West London in those days and it was the West London my granddad had told me about! My granddad came here and he lived in Ladbroke Grove for a long time and when I used to walk the street with my granddad everyone knew him and called him Longlife, you know. [Laughter] They knew him from the parties, He knew more people in Ladbroke Grove than me. What Sam Selvon was talking about was what I’d heard about anyway, so when I read it in a book, I knew it was right .I feel part of that tradition. It was Maya Jaggi who did an article in The Guardian and she was saying people like me and Biyi Bandele we’re just trying to be pale imitations of Sam Selvon and blah blah blah. I think that’s ridiculous, I’m not trying to be like Sam Selvon, I’m very respectful of him, I love his work but I’m trying to do me. If you put him and then me together you can see where the links are and people should really try and do that rather than trying to tear me down or Biyi Bandele down for writing The Street.
I met George Lamming, I loved In the Castle of My Skin when I was a kid and Earl Lovelace’s amazing book Salt. They’re great people and I love what they’re doing – but I want to do something different.
On Writing For The Theatre
In a large sense I’m just trying to tell stories in a different medium. To me that’s the only real link there is. I don’t try and cross the worlds over. I don’t take characters from books and put them into plays. None of the characters from the books or the plays have ever crossed over.
I don’t want to do that. To me a book is a book and I respect that medium, I respect that format, and it gives me certain powers and rules that I have to play by and that’s fine for the book.
And the play is a different medium and I want to use that to do different things and tell different stories. I’ve usually said that the books are definitely for me to explore a Black British culture, whereas the plays are a little bit wider than that in my sense. I want to explore things from a Black British perspective but using a wider set of people to do that. So it might not always be about black characters, but they will be in the plays.
Yes, and the fact that really I wanted to learn how to read performance readings properly and that all stems from my Tell Tales short story project, which is live readings with other writers that we toured last year. At that time it was just about me wanting to learn how to read properly. So I went to see a theatre director called Riggs O’Hara. He had a theatre called The Post Office Theatre, which was in Ladbroke Grove. I went down there. He was looking for a writer at the time. I read a bit of The Scholar. It was really mad. I walked in there and I said, I’ve got this book and I really want to read it and he said “What? This book?” – and he had it [Laughter]. He’d done his homework as well. I read for about fifteen minutes and he was like “Cool. You’re sorted for reading, you haven’t got that many problems,” but he said “What about giving me a play then? Can I have a play?” Well, theatre, I’m not really into it – for the same reasons as well. It’s always about the Caribbean, if it’s Black it’s always very middle-class in its undertaking, and I just didn’t think that you could do the kind of stuff that I wanted to do in theatre. But I wrote a little monologue for an actress called Carol Moses, a one-woman monologue. We did it at the first Portobello Festival. It’s about forty-five minutes long. That was my first piece. For me it was an easy transition to do just dialogue because I’ve been known for dialogue because of The Scholar. And it really worked. And that was me hooked then on theatre.
When I was young my mum took me to a lot of those Black theatre productions that used to be on in the 80s when there was a big boom of Black theatre – Black Heroes in the Hall of Fame, that kind of thing. A lot of the stuff that was on at Riverside [Studios] and the Lyric [Hammersmith] we used to go to. My mum was very much like, you know, “I’m going to make sure he reads these books, and he sees these plays.” And then also I did drama at school. With the drama group we’d go and see A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Riverside. So I’d been but it never really made me feel I could tell my stories through it.
It’s slightly changed from when I started working on theatre. And it wasn’t just about detailing the lives of urban black youth, it was about telling stories that could reflect on a wider experience. It wasn’t just the youth I was talking about, it was anyone I could talk about. And Euripides just came from me really needing to learn, to have a crash course in theatre writing and structure. I decided to adapt Euripides, urged on by Riggs, because structurally I would learn so much from just working on a piece like that. It has definitely helped me. My theatre writing definitely changed after that. With theatre I do still want to chronicle Black British lives, but I don’t want that to be the be all and end all of the plays. I wrote two plays last year, one called Whistling Maggie, which is more about politics and intrigue, and another play called Outdoors, which has a white main character and is more about writing and what happens to a writer when he reaches a point where he has to stop doing what he’s doing, like living a very decadent lifestyle. And he’s got to a point where he has to change that and it’s about what that does to him. I’m not trying to deal with the issues so much in the forefront, where theatre is concerned; I’m trying to tell stories and let the issues be reflected in the characters.
There’s a lot of things that the play was trying to touch on, some might say too much. The No. 1 thing was our battles with the funding system and the fact that we hadn’t been funded for any plays until that point. In fact I think the theatre system as a whole has acted against us and has turned their backs on us a lot of the time. They haven’t been as forthcoming as you would think they would be for a young company that is doing so well and has had good reviews from Michael Billington [The Guardian]. They’ve been like, “well, no, that’s what you lot do. Until you get funding, we’re not going to deal with you as a theatre company.” The funders are like: “we’ll fund you, but we’re not going to fund your director because we don’t approve of your director.” As far as I’m concerned that’s just as much censorship as anything else that’s being going on in the past really. It’s like: why can’t I tell my stories? Our plays are sold out, people obviously want to come to see them by now, so why are you stopping me? That’s really what I wanted to talk about first and foremost. But then I wanted to talk about what’s going on, not just in black theatre but also in black literature; it is like censorship in a sense because I feel that we are only being allowed to tell certain stories and we are only being allowed to say certain things. It’s almost like: “if you don’t want to do that, then you’re not allowed to play ball.” And a lot of people don’t want to do that, so they are pushed out, they are pushed to the sidelines and the people that do want to do that are not always acting in the best interests of black people as a whole, for the majority. They are acting for self-serving interests. And I see that with a lot of writers. I’m not going to go into who, but I think a lot of writers do that and act like that. A lot of writers pretend “I have nothing to do with the rest of them, they’re beneath me.” You know what I mean?
I’ve been to so many different black plays and I’ve never apart from – ok, I’m going to have to say this – apart from at the Royal Court, where I was really appalled. I walked in there and I sat down to see a black play, and I’m looking around and nobody in the theatre was black. They’re the only people who seem to have a problem. Everywhere else I’ve been to the play has been full of black people, every other theatre company. I think if you want it you can get it.
Black people out there, I’m telling you, they’re starving for black plays, they really want to see black plays, they are sick of not seeing themselves represented.
I think it should not be a problem, it certainly hasn’t been a problem for me. But I also want a diverse audience. I don’t want to be talking to all black people, there’s no point in that. It’s like preaching to the converted. I want some other people to see it.
Well, my theatre company is not a Black British theatre company. We call it a black-led company because the plays are about black issues, but in my company half is black and half is white. So there’s an equal number of white people who are coming to see it, not just because of that but we are trying to attract them as well. In B is for Black it’s amazing how many white people there are in the audience, how many Indians there are, how many Chinese there are. It’s like saying that only Italians can go and watch Goodfellas [Laughter].It’s a ridiculous notion. I don’t hold to that at all.
We did a couple of short films and I’ve written a load of short film scripts, which I’m still trying to get out. I’ve been working on that in between working on the books. It’s like theatre, it’s another medium for me. I feel it’s got its own rules and regulations as well, and if I can learn how to work with those in my favour then I will. I’m not against it or overly for it. It’s all writing to me. I write – I do short stories, I’ll do whatever medium I like. Funnily enough I’m not really into radio drama, it doesn’t spark something in me.
I just find it really funny, because they say we can’t always write about racism. It has been said and people say it – I’m going to do it again – but I think we very rarely do.
If you really look at the evidence, we’ve got such a phobia about talking about racism that actually we don’t talk about it hardly ever. I just think that’s wrong, especially in this climate.
The first thing that black writers tend to do is if they get into a mainstream area is drop that straight away. It’s the same with IC3. I got attacked by a black critic from Newsnight for IC3, like “why are so many black writers talking about racism?” And I’m like, “why are you going to block people’s experience, why are you going to censor what they want to say?” I’m a writer that doesn’t really largely talk about racism, I don’t, but I don’t think we should stop other people talking about it if they want. Why is there this “Oh, oh, racism, racism, racism; we can’t tackle it?” You can’t limit people’s experience, you can’t say to people, “Ok, talk about this, but don’t talk about that at all.” As writers we should have freedom of expression. I didn’t like that interview, to be honest with you. I’ve been very open about that. I felt it was cropped in such a way that it made a lot of the stuff that I was saying safe; that interview was made safe. There was a lot more fireworks [Laughter] and there was a lot more of me taking a position where I was on one side and Mark and Kwame were taking a position. And when it came to the question “what is the responsibility of the writer,” both of them are saying to me, “why should a writer have responsibility” and I felt, why am I even arguing that? [Laughter]. It became a big thing in the interview and all of that was cropped out of it. They felt that people wouldn’t want to see those kinds of views coming from them, so they made it look a little bit more like we were all on the same page. But people noticed; they noticed that there was a difference in what I was saying and what they were saying. I think people get scared, writers get scared, black writers are very, very scared people, I find. In this country they are very scared of chasing away the white ₤.
The type of shows that are being done at the National are very safe shows, there’s nothing that’s really challenging. I stand by that. They are still treating us like “other,” they are not treating us like we are part of the fabric of the society, they are still treating us like an anomaly. And that’s what I am against, you know. Kwame’s Elmina’s Kitchen was very much like, “ok, look at these people and look at how they view crime.” And very inaccurate, I’m sorry, but I felt it was very inaccurate in terms of the language, in terms of the way the people would behave. I had a big argument with a playwright about whether accuracy was necessary in theatre. She was saying it didn’t matter that Kwame’s play was inaccurate, she enjoyed it and she liked it. And that was the bottom line. I feel that if you’re portraying something that’s meant to be close to real life, then you’d better have a responsibility. The other play that was at the National, Roy [Williams]’s play  I felt that while on a technical level there’s nothing wrong with those plays, they do what they are meant to do – A meets B and they link and sometimes make C – I find that in doing that, in piecing things together like that, sometimes you lose something. In both of those plays I felt that black characters and black people lost out in a sense because reality had to take a back step to theatricality. That’s like a pay-off. I just feel that we don’t have to make that pay-off. We can balance it a bit more.
Well, that’s what B is for Black was about as well. On another tier, B is for Black was saying: “you’re still treating us in a very unequal way even though you think that you are not. And please be aware of that.” And then the Eclipse programme came out and there was a questionnaire that went out to the publishing industry as well. And they found that yes, it is very racist. There are not that many black people involved in it. I think there is a big cultural inequality, but you are not going to hear somebody like Kwame talking about that. I’m sorry, I think he’s cool, I think he’s a good writer, but I want to debate these things with him. And that’s what I was doing that day. I’m not just going to say, “Hey Kwame, everything you say is cool.”
I don’t agree with the fact that there is cultural equality. I think there is mass inequality. And the way we could combat the mass inequality is to have a diverse view of what Black writing is and Black people are.
Basically so far it has been, “unless you conform to our idea of what theatre should be and the stories we think you should tell, then we are not letting you in.” And it’s not been about, “Ok, we see that you are doing something and even if we don’t understand quite how it works, and it’s not within our remit of how traditional theatre should be, let’s at least work with you and see how that can happen.” All I’ve been offered is things that I don’t do. I’m like “why should I change what I do if it is clearly working?” We did B is for Black and we were sold out from the second day. I admit it’s not in a large venue like the National – but put me in the National then! And if I fail, I’ll go back to my little venues and work on that level, but I don’t think I will. It’s never happened before. I say this all the time: put me on the same arena then if you’re so confident that what I do doesn’t work, put me in the same arena and let’s see. Let’s try it out.