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Moses McKenzie: ‘I was thinking about the predicament of the black British diaspora’

Moses McKenzie: ‘I was thinking about the predicament of the black British diaspora’

Moses McKenzie, 26, won last year’s Hawthornden prize, previously awarded to Hilary Mantel and Ali Smith, for his 2022 debut, An Olive Grove in Ends, set among Jamaicans and Somalis in Bristol, where he grew up. William Waldegrave, a Tory MP in the city from 1979 to 1997, wrote in the New Statesman that the novel was “astonishing… rather as Dickens introduced complaisant Victorians to some of what was going on around them in the cities, McKenzie tells us what is actually happening”. His new novel, Fast By the Horns, returns to Bristol to follow a 14-year-old Rastafarian in 1980, the year of the St Pauls riot.

How did you research a book set before you were born?
With An Olive Grove in Ends, I’ll never [now] write a book where I have to do as little research. Fast By the Horns needed more, but most of it was conversations. It’s a period in living memory. My dad lived through it, my uncles, my auntie, my mum lived through it. I’ve been surrounded by stories of that time from yute.

Why did you want to write about that period?
I was thinking about the predicament of the black British diaspora. In the 80s, Rastafari was saying we need to go home. The narrator was raised in that idea and doesn’t want to challenge it, but the novel constantly brings him back to reality. So if the solution is: “Let’s go back to Shashamane Land [in Ethiopia]”, cool. But what happens to the black people here? And what is Shashamane Land actually like? You have to deal with the reality of who Haile Selassie was. So many Ethiopians talk about how his rule [1930-1974] was oppressive; for a group that denounces hierarchy, Rastafari is incredibly patriarchal.

Were there any models for the book?
Jabari [the narrator] has no time for compassion or introspective ability. He was only taught to be resilient, to keep going. It’s difficult to write in the first person and create empathy for a character like that. The Catcher in the Rye definitely influenced my thinking about how to do it. I knew the book needed to be short because the voice is so strong – eventually it would just get annoying.

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The style feels more uncompromising than in your first novel.
In An Olive Grove in Ends, I wrote in an anglicised Jamaican patois. What I did was perhaps the wrong decision; I diluted the language and made it more akin to broken English. In Fast By the Horns, I took a leaf out of books by Andrea Levy, George Lamming and Sam Selvon – to double down on the rhythm of the speech, the spellings too.

Did you get any pushback editorially?
I have a good relationship with my editor. With An Olive Grove…, she floated the idea of a glossary quite sheepishly because she knew what the reaction was going to be [laughs]. I write knowing there are obstacles for the average reader – the average reader being a middle-class white person. But my job is not the same as my agent’s or my editor’s or my publicist’s. They’re employed to think about the widest readership possible; I’m not. My little sister’s always searching for negative reviews to show me gleefully; she’ll show the responses where people say the language is a barrier to them. I do have concern for my reader – I just have a specific idea of who that reader is. Anyone outside of that is a blessing.

How did it feel to be praised by William Waldegrave?
What he wrote made me laugh. It was nice though. I didn’t know who he was. I have a very romantic idea of writing: if your appreciation of your own work comes from its success, whether commercial or critical, you’re playing a risky game, especially as a black author. With An Olive Grove in Ends, which I think is a good book, the desire for that novel – the swiftness of how it was picked up – was a direct result of what happened with George Floyd, you know. A lot of black British writers were getting book deals. It was a chance [for publishers] to make money using death and discrimination as marketing tools. I’m not criticising individuals, more the system. At a festival someone asked whether I thought the uptake in diverse voices would continue; I said it 100% would not.

Where did you write Fast By the Horns?
On my auntie’s dinner table.

What did you read as a child?
I loved Caroline Lawrence’s series The Roman Mysteries – The Thieves of Ostia is the first one. The Lord of the Rings. Narnia, especially The Horse and His Boy, the best one. Then I read books like Alex Rider, the Lionboy series, Cherub by Robert Muchamore; I just remember it said on the back that he was an Arsenal fan, and I was like, yeah. I read a lot in primary school and at the beginning of secondary school, then there was a period where I wasn’t really. I started again around 17 and decided to start writing in 2018; before then, I was just writing bars for my bredrins.

What have you been reading lately?
Ulysses. As soon as I started reading it, I Googled what Joyce’s relationship was with drugs, you know what I’m saying? My first thought was, man’s taken a lot of drugs. His writing is so alive. He loves the English language, that’s the most obvious thing to me. I’m also reading History of Islamic Philosophy by Henry Corbin, whose book Alone With the Alone [about the 12th-century philosopher Ibn ‘Arabī] is amazing. And I’ve been reading Oral Poetry and Somali Nationalism: The Case of Sayyid Mahammad, and a Sufi commentary on the Qur’an. Almost everything I’ve been reading has been to do with my third novel, which starts in about 1400 and ends in about 1506. It’s set in the Caribbean, which is difficult to research because the peoples that were living there didn’t write and a genocide was enacted on them. With this book, [Gabriel García] Márquez’s inspiration will be obvious in my work for the first time.

  • Fast By the Horns is published on 9 May by Wildfire (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Source: theguardian.com