“Although I had been writing for many years as a ‘hobby’, I only turned to serious writing when I was 21. I had tried various avenues for making money and none of them had worked. I really wanted to build a music studio, so I decided to write a book and sell it, and then build my studio from the proceeds. As you can see, I had no idea what a writer’s life was like. Luckily for me, I enjoyed writing the book so much, I gave up on music.”
Courttia Newland in a conversation with writers, in 2009.
Shepherd’s Bush, West London is the location of Courttia Newlands’s ‘various avenues’ to make money. The London-born writer initially pursued a career as a rapper and a music producer, and with his friends, released a Drum n’ Bass white label. Indeed, Courttia’s pursuit of a career as a rapper was, in a sense, both a substitute for and a rejection of an innate instinct for creative writing. Despite being encouraged to pursue a career as a novelist as early as the age of eleven Courttia delayed it for many years, saying, in reflection ‘[t]hough I enjoyed writing, I felt that books were something you did when you were older – much older -and as I hadn’t even become a teenager yet, I felt that I had plenty of time. I would enjoy a successful music career, then write books when I couldn’t entertain any more -easy.’ After years of little success in the music/entertainment industry, and a four-year period of unemployment, Newland had an idea for a novel. Or rather, a novel that had been ruminating in the background of his mind began to take form. Eight months and eight hundred pages later, he had the first draft of the manuscript that would eventually become his first novel, The Scholar. He has since written other novels, short stories and plays, further cementing his status as a literary authority on beautifully expressing the Black British experience and expanding the purpose and potential of the European novel form.
“You can’t tell young people what you think of their behavior if you haven’t known them since they were toddlers, and even then you keep a close eye on your tongue. Knives and guns are commonplace, and there are even local stories of people being shot for asking the young not to smoke in a public place.”
An excerpt from The Gospel According to Cane by Courttia Newland
Though non-British critics have read allusions to hip hop in Courttia’s work as him being in thrall to African American culture, Courttia’s writing, undeniably continues in the tradition carved out by postwar pioneers of black British fiction. Moreover, both through his language, locations and thematic concerns, Courttia evokes and expresses a uniquely Black British worldview. Fundamentally, Courttia is a storyteller, and his body of work has expanded to include detective fiction and theatre writing. Despite attempts at pingeon-holing, as has long been the constant experience of Black writers in mainstream publishing, readers have much to enjoy in Courttia’s versatility as a writer. The Scholar and Society Within explore London life and coming of age; these novels, respectively, centre around two young male protagonists and two young female protagonists. Snakeskin explores the same world, but from the perspective of a private investigator. The Gospel According to Cane is a captivating psychological exploration of maternal loss. Music for the Off-Key is a collection of macabre short stories.
“The Scholar is the first novel I had read where I recognised the characters instantly; where I felt the author was writing about people who I knew, who lived around the corner from me. It inspired me to complete my own work-in-progress. Courttia made me know it could be done.”
– Alex Wheatle MBE
Courttia is a writer who has influenced an entire generation of British artists. From Michaela Coel of Chewing Gum to grime artist Wiley, the British creative scene owes a great deal to this writer who, as described above, showed black writers that their worlds, both experienced and imagined, were valid and worthy of lyrical and dramatic articulation.
In conclusion, one can only hope that Courttia appreciates the great service he has done in feeding the imaginations of those British writers and creatives that came after him. I remember when The Scholar appeared on the scene in my secondary school. There was one copy which was passed around and read by almost every girl in my class. This ravenous patience was ignited and satisfied by the emergence of The Scholar as the first novel that portrayed a world that we could recognise more immediately and with more intimacy than anything we had ever read. That is not to say that we all identified with the poverty and crime in the world of the novel, but to read a novel that captured the depth and soul of London was and remains a truly remarkable literary feat. It’s almost hard to believe that the Scholar celebrated it’s 21st anniversary earlier this week. Here’s to 21 more years of great writing by this British literary treasure.
If you’re intrigued to find more about Courttia Newland’s work, have a look at some of his books: