The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Peter Akinti

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks to Peter Akinti

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Summary: Bookbag was deeply affected by Peter Akinti's novel about contemporary life in Britain. It moulds urban, black and refugee experiences and deals unflinchingly with suicide. It hurts to read - but never, ever forgets that love can save us all. Peter Akinti was kind enough to be interviewed by Bookbag.
Date: 12 March 2009
Interviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy

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Bookbag loved Peter Akinti's novel Forest Gate and the chance to ask him a few questions was more than we could resist.

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine the people who will read Forest Gate, who do you see?

Peter Akinti: All those book lovers interested in socially attentive writing, the same that has been prevalent in state-of-the-nation novels since the very beginning.

  • BB: For this ex-Londoner, Forest Gate draws some very painful parallels between war-torn Somalia and life on some of London 's streets. Yet Armeina defends London. Why does she?

PA: When I wrote Forest Gate one of my aims was to provide a snapshot of young black people in London, to try to paint a truer picture of their mixed identity and or culture. I wanted to show what life was like under the full effects of constant migration; how much globalization is affecting us in ways we are yet able to fully grasp. I didn't want to compare London and Somalia. I wanted to compare two lives that clash in London; to show how very different two young black people living in London might be, the causes and effects of that interaction.

  • BB: The stop and search scene was, if you'll forgive the pun, arresting. What do you think of such laws?

PA: Stop and search is so outdated a term it brings back ugly memories for me. When I wrote the scene you refer to, it came from an experience I shared with my niece who was questioned as an eyewitness to the violent murder of one of her friends in east London. On the drive home, after a lengthy police interview, I proceeded to lecture about keeping bad company. Then I asked her to tell me what she thought about the police.

"Can I be honest uncle Peter?" she asked.
"Please," I said.
"I feel like I have been abused," she said and she began to sob.

I knew exactly how she felt. I suspect most people living in inner cities will understand this scene too. What do I think about such laws? In the early 80s black people in London would complain about stop and search laws all the time. Generally speaking, these days in London, it's the Muslims that are feeling more of the heat from the Metropolitan Police.

  • BB: If you could pass one law, specifically for London, what would it be?

PA: The launch date of my book (23 March 2009) would be a public holiday. Everyone would be forced to go buy a copy of Forest Gate.

  • BB: Both Armeina and James see their only chance as each other. Is this true?

PA: In a way, yes. James and Armeina feel their best chance or survival is by teaming up and facing fate together.

  • BB: Can love really save us all?

PA: I just asked the missus (with my early morning breath).

"Huh?" she said, she frowned, turned away from me and went back to snoring.

  • BB: James Baldwin turns up several times in the text, and we love the quotation you chose for the beginning of the book. How much of an influence has his work been to you?

PA: When I first read Dostoyevsky's Notes From The Underground and got to know and love his character, underground man, I knew I wanted to write. When I read James Baldwin I understood why I wanted to write.

  • BB: Can literature make real changes to society?

PA: Someone famous (can’t remember who) said "without books history is silent". I agree with that. I spent three decades growing up in east London. I got so angry about so many different issues; without literature, for me there would have been no other way for me to use my voice to address my concerns.

  • BB: What are you reading now?

PA: Not reading anything right now. I’m trying to finish my second novel. Me and the wife have just had a baby boy - We heard somewhere that James Salter wrote a good love scene so we started reading his novel Sport and a Pastime together at nights to try to get over the whole home-birth experience. That lasted three days - my little boy wasn't having any of it. The last book I read was Marguerite Duras's The Lover. I had to sit still for five minutes, slurping coffee with envy after I read the opening to that book...

One day, I was already old, in the entrance of a public place, a man came up to me. He introduced himself and said: "I've known you for years. Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you I think you're more beautiful now than then. Rather than your face as a young woman, I prefer your face as it is now. Ravaged."

I want to write like this. Magic.

  • BB: What's next for Peter Akinti?

PA: Don't you just hate it when first time authors talk about the future? Who knows what will happen next? I’m from east London, I don’t take anything for granted, I don’t think that far ahead. I write every day, I know that much. The rest isn't down to me.

  • BB: Thanks a lot, Peter - and congratulations on the new baby!

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