Bringing You the Daily Dispatch

‘I wanted Queenie in everyone’s house’: Candice Carty-Williams’s era-defining novel explodes on to TV
Culture TV and Radio

‘I wanted Queenie in everyone’s house’: Candice Carty-Williams’s era-defining novel explodes on to TV

A few minutes into my chat with Candice Carty-Williams, she receives a text message. “It’s Emerald Fennell,” she says, stealing a glance at her phone and smiling. “She’s one of the new friends that I’ve made.”

Of course Carty-Williams’s friendship circle has expanded to include Oscar-winning writers. Since the 2019 publication of her debut novel, Queenie, the 34-year-old has become one of Britain’s buzziest new authors. The story of Queenie Jenkins, a 25-year-old Jamaican British woman who seeks comfort in all the wrong places following a messy breakup with her long-term, white boyfriend, was an overnight phenomenon. It won book of the year at the British Book awards (making Carty-Williams the first Black author to do so), while reviewers praised it as both a “smart and breezy comic debut” and “astutely political”. Writing in Time magazine, Afua Hirsch said Carty-Williams had “taken a black woman’s story and made it a story of the age”.

Now Queenie is getting a TV adaptation – for which Carty-Williams is the showrunner and executive producer. It’s her second series, following BBC rap drama Champion, and its imminent Channel 4 debut follows years of anticipation. Is she excited?

‘Some things within the community are very hush hush’: Carty-Williams.View image in fullscreen

“I’m interested to see how people receive it,” she says. “Queenie has been such a big part of my life since her conception, so over the years I’ve had to find a way to be like: ‘What she stands for and the phenomenon around her has nothing to do with your life.’”

But it’s clear Queenie still holds a special place in her creator’s heart. The bright pink shelf behind her is lined with different coloured covers of the book. She describes the character as “someone who is trying, and someone who is figuring it out as she goes along. Quite a loving person, but held back by the lack of love that she has.”

Over eight episodes, we see Queenie navigate relationships with her friends, family and love interests – often resorting to humour to get through difficult situations. In the opening episode, when her aunt warns her against dating Gemini men, she responds with a smirk: “When you say Gemini boy you mean white boy, don’t you?”

It’s both funny and painfully relatable, with a voiceover narration by Dionne Brown – the 28-year-old who plays Queenie – that brings to mind Issa Rae’s Awkward Black Girl and Michaela Coel’s Chewing Gum. At times, you want to grab Queenie by the shoulders and tell her to stop setting fire to her own life, as twentysomethings are wont to do. When Brown first read Queenie’s tale, it really struck a chord with her.

“There was a fellowship, like: ‘I’ve felt like that and not been able to articulate it.’ It was quite cathartic. I kept shutting the book and going: ‘Oh, my God,’ because I thought I was the only girl that undermined myself, overthought everything, or at some point lacked boundaries. When I saw Candice on set I was like: ‘Did we know each other in a past life?’”

Brown, who has appeared in ITV’s The Walk In and Apple TV+’s Criminal Record, sees Queenie as a character that truly transcends background.

“There are so many elements of the story that are universal, irrespective of skin colour or cultural heritage. We’ve all broken up with somebody, or somebody’s left, and we’ve wanted them to stay. Who are you without the things you thought were going to make you happy? It’s the simplest thing. I don’t know anyone that can’t resonate with it to some degree.”

Brown with Bellah as Kyazike in Queenie.View image in fullscreen

Queenie has been called the “Black Bridget Jones” – a tagline Carty-Williams came up with. The books, as well as the film and TV show, do bear a loose resemblance in their depiction of a female protagonist who doesn’t have everything figured out – one who can simultaneously be awkward, shy, and funny; and whose conventional quest for love leads her to the realisation that self-acceptance is more important.

The TV series shares a few similarities with the way Helen Fielding’s novels were adapted for the screen. It’s full of scenes of Queenie being underestimated at work and misjudged by her family – in one episode she even wears Bridget’s infamous bunny costume in a clear nod to her forerunner. But instead of moping on the sofa, Queenie meets a slew of sexual partners on dating apps; she swaps out the cigarettes for vapes.

“When I said Queenie was the Black Bridget Jones I meant this shouldn’t be a quiet publication,” Carty-Williams says. “Bridget Jones’s Diary was in most women’s houses that I knew when I was growing up. I stole my first copy from my aunt. I wanted Queenie to be in everyone’s house, too.”

Her experience working for a publishing house (Carty-Williams was a marketing executive at 4th Estate) taught her a few things, including that Black female authors had “very minimal representation” in the UK. This was behind her decision to set up the 4thWrite short story prize with the Guardian and 4th Estate, offering BAME writers assistance towards publishing or literary agent representation.

“I knew the budgets that books by Black women were being given. It was important to me that this character and this book were mainstream, and a marketing budget was put behind them. That’s the comparison. But Bridget is Bridget. She’s a middle-class, white blond woman who grew up outside London with parents who have money. She lives in a gorgeous flat in London Bridge. And Queenie could be none of those things.”

Brown with Joseph Ollman in Queenie.View image in fullscreen

Where Queenie goes deeper is in its exploration of the reductive stereotypes about Black women and their bodies. The show opens with Queenie being given a gynaecological examination. She lies there awkwardly while four doctors and nurses stand over her and talk about her as if she’s not in the room. It’s an amusing, exasperating watch.

skip past newsletter promotion

“I really wanted to start it with this Black woman in the most vulnerable place that women can be,” Carty-Williams says. “In stirrups, naked from the waist down, and there is someone that you don’t know who is about to make an assessment of you. They’re not paying attention to you or to the person that you are. I think so many women can relate to that.”

As Queenie’s vulnerability presents itself we also bear witness to the deterioration of her mental health – something Carty-Williams has had first-hand experience of. Growing up in south London, the writer had a difficult time in school, where her teachers believed she had behavioural issues and consistently underestimated her. She lived with her mum and partner in an environment that she has previously said “wasn’t good” for her. Then, in her early 20s (following a degree in communication and media studies at the University of Sussex), her best friend was diagnosed with cancer, which triggered a bout of severe anxiety and depression – she was unable to eat, leave the house, or see her friends for several years.

She had a spell of therapy but stopped when she became better at coping. Or so she thought, until she wrote Queenie. She realised then that there was a disconnect between the success of the book and how she truly felt about herself.

‘When I saw Candice on set I was like: did we know each other in a past life?’: Brown.View image in fullscreen

“I didn’t start therapy properly until Queenie won book of the year, and I knew people would be congratulating me,” she says. “I knew I would feel so at odds with [all the compliments] that I would want to kill myself. I was in a place where I didn’t like myself at all. I didn’t want to be here. It was childhood trauma that was resurfacing.”

Since then, she’s been working with a therapist on “how I can receive love”. In writing Queenie, she wanted to create a space for people to talk more easily about mental health issues, especially those from backgrounds and cultures where it’s more taboo.

“A lot of our parents and our grandparents didn’t have time to think about this stuff because they were working. And I get that. My grandparents came from a very tiny part of St Mary in Jamaica. Their house was a shack. My grandad came over here and worked for London Underground. My nan was a nurse, and then looked after her five children and her grandchildren. Where’s the time to be like: ‘Oh, I feel sad. I feel anxious about something’? But mental health amongst Black people, and amongst other underrepresented communities, is a very real thing. We’re still figuring out who we are in this country. And this country doesn’t make it easy for us.”

Brown echoes this. “One thing that I observe as a Caribbean woman is that some things within the community are very hush hush, because it’s ‘embarrassing’ or seen as a weakness. But it’s actually quite normal. Sometimes all it takes is you saying something out loud, and someone saying: ‘That’s not true.’ And it helps you to let it go.”

Needless to say, there are parallels between Queenie and Carty-Williams. Is the writer sick of being asked if Queenie is a work of autofiction? The answer is yes.

“Men never get asked that question. In On Chesil Beach, there is a man who is suffering with premature ejaculation, but no one asks Ian McEwan if it’s based on him. In reality, Queenie has a much better life than I had. And her experiences with men have actually been a lot better than mine.”

Plus, there’s one other difference – she doesn’t have Emerald Fennell’s number in her phone.

Queenie starts 4 June, 10pm, Channel 4

Source: theguardian.com