This is the first in a series of blog posts where I talk about the process of writing and self-publishing my first novel, A Prophet Who Loved Her (released in October 2020)
Even though I was technically born in the 80s (1989 to be exact) I cannot make the claim that I am a child of the 80s. I am very much a 90s baby – Pokémon, Nickelodeon, Harry Potter, Nokia 3210s, So Solid Crew and Myspace are what I grew up with and what shaped me.
So you can imagine how crazy I must have been when I decided half of my first novel, ‘A Prophet Who Loved Her’, would be set in Brixton during the 80s. Readers will follow my two main Black British characters, Elijah and Esther, as they grow up in a racist South London during the 80s and gradually fall in love.
Why 1980s and why South London?
A few people have asked me why I decided to set half of my book in the 1980s when I wasn’t even alive for nearly all that decade. One of my goals with ‘A Prophet Who Loved Her’ was to explore a significant period of modern Black British history which isn’t written about much. Apart from some of the great books written by Alex Wheatle (which were great source of information about growing up in 80s Brixton), there wasn’t much literature which explores this fascinating and important period in Black British history.
The 80s, especially in South London in areas like Lambeth and Lewisham, were a time when many black Britons, largely of West Indian heritage, were starting to find their identity as black Britons during a period of widescale racism, from the police right up to Thatcher’s government.
We don’t have enough black British books or media which looks back at the modern history of Black British people and appreciates how far Black British people have come since then. So I wanted ‘A Prophet Who Loved Her’ to partly take place in a period where I could explore this era.
The slang of the times – Did people still say “innit?”
I’ve always been someone who loves language (I studied English Language at university after all) and for me, one of the joys of setting my book in the 80s was researching how young black people spoke in Britain during the 80s. In Brixton, especially among the West Indian children who grew up in Brixton, Rastafarian colloquialisms and Jamaican patios pepper the languages of the youth (as it still does today).
Since Elijah and Esther are British Nigerian, I made their language more aligned with how British white youth spoke since they wouldn’t absorb so much of the West Indian culture as they are from an African background and grew up in an African household.
Technology of the time
There was no social media or apps during the 80s. Teenagers left their houses and did stuff! Imagine that happening now. You couldn’t stream movies over the internet(which was only an exciting concept at this point not even a thing) so there was no Netflix. You had to buy a VHS tape and play it in a VCR. Towards the very late 80s, pagers became available which was basically like text messaging and a technology Elijah and Esther use during the parts of the book set in the 80s.
The technology available during this time period informed a lot of the story. I couldn’t just have my characters call each other when they wanted as smartphones did not exist yet. Face-to-face communication was a lot common then and people experienced the moment rather than film everything and communicate everything via their smartphones. Maybe things were better back then but it was interesting to write about how black British teenagers would have interacted with each other during the 80s.
What it did mean to be Black British in London during the 80s
Right now, we live in a period where Black British culture, from Caribbean to African, is not only accepted but celebrated. Go to any British nightclub now or turn on the radio and you’ll hear so much black music, from reggae to afrobeats.
But it wasn’t always like this. Afrobeats did not even exist in the 80s as African culture was largely shunned in the 80s and the 90s (I experienced this growing up). Bob Marley’s massive success meant that black music and reggae were one in the same.
Afrobeat, which is entirely different from Afrobeats, was pioneered by Fela Kuti, It quite popular among the African diaspora. This West African sound was played in Nigerian parties and households in London during the 80s and still is till this day (I grew up listening to this in my father’s car as a youth).
Mostly, it was American rap, reggae, punk and jazz music that was popular among many black Britons during the 80s. There was not really a collective Black British culture in London in the 80s as many black Britons were too busy just trying to find a job and survive in a hostile country.
Things would change. A series of events, such as the 1985 Brixton Riots, the 1981 New Cross house fire and the Black People Day Of Action, all explored in my book, reveal how Black Britons slowly began to form an identity as they came together and rallied against the racism that blighted their lives.
A Prophet Who Loved Her, Leke Apena’s first novel, will be published in 2020. Find out more here.