Rosa Guy is a Black American writer who has been described as ‘the creator of some of the most memorable adolescent characters in modern literature’. Her stories are hard-hitting and compellingly realistic, with a powerful message for young people.
She demonstrates a deep understanding and sympathy for young people and the many difficulties they face growing up or purely surviving today. Her books are mainly about Black characters but she doesn’t see herself writing only for Black young people: ‘I write for a world audience. I want to feel it’s a universal not a specifically Black audience. I do believe that people are not that different. What helps one helps another and what destroys one destroys another.’
She writes from the conviction that her books have a message. ‘I’m trying to raise the consciousness of young people because I believe that the future of the world is in the hands of young people. They are going to become the leaders of another generation. They need to understand it as fully as they can – the survival of the human race may depend on it.’
Born in Trinidad, Rosa Guy grew up as an orphan in Harlem. She left school at 14 and tried to break into acting but couldn’t. Always tough and determined, she decided to write her own plays. She had a couple of off-Broadway successes, but gave up playwriting because she found it too restrictive. From there it was a natural, if slow, progress to being a writer.
Her first book The Friends established Rosa Guy as a sympathetic chronicler of contemporary Black life, Black pride and Black expectations and at the same time it introduced one of teenage fiction’s most poignant heroes, Edith Jackson.
The Friends chronicles the unlikely and at first unwanted friendship between Phyllisia, newly arrived in Harlem from the West Indies, and scruffy, irrepressible, Edith. Things are bad at home for Phyllisia; she hates her tyrannical father and her mother is slowly dying, but things are infinitely worse for Edith who takes enormous responsibility for her younger family and lives in abject poverty. It is a harrowing story of the pressures, the violence, the poverty of urban America. Nothing is really changed at the end of the book but Phyllisia has begun to come to terms with herself and her father and the point is made very forcibly that real friendship entails responsibilities and obligations.
The second novel to be published here was Edith Jackson which takes up the story of Edith, now 17, and her three surviving sisters living in a foster home. The sisters are learning individually to find their own solutions to their problems but Edith is blind to her own potential and worth, and is passionately concerned to keep the family, the only secure element of her life, together. It is a deeply moving novel which offers a perceptive, harsh account of Edith’s search for love and identity. Rosa Guy admits it contains autobiographical elements: being an orphan; the strong father (Calvin); the sister; the West Indian coming to the United States and feeling an outsider. ‘Edith Jackson is another extension – a part – of me,’ says Rosa. ‘At first I thought of killing Edith off, then I wanted to develop her more, in line with things that were really happening to young people around her age, things that really needed to be talked about. Phyllisia, too, emerges as a strong character. She has to be strong to go through that Calvin who is very hard to go through – because they bend your will you never get over them, strong mothers and fathers. It is very hard to get past them, to assert a sense of self.’
The book actually written between The Friends and Edith Jackson, but published here much later, because of its problematic theme of lesbian love, was Ruby, which concentrates on Phyllisia’s elder sister, Ruby. Ruby is unsure of herself, bored and desperately lonely until she meets fellow classmate, Daphne, and forms a deep and intimate relationship with her. For Ruby, it is a blissful, painful first love affair which is started, shaped and finished by Daphne. At first desolate, Ruby finally sees that her time spent with Daphne has given her the confidence she hitherto lacked to challenge her father and seek her own freedom. The book lacks the intensity of the other two titles but the lesbian relationship is perceptively observed.
The Disappearance introduces for the first time a male central character, Imamu Jones. It is a dramatic thriller for older teenagers which gives a brutally disturbing picture of contemporary American society, contrasting the squalor of downtown Harlem with the outwardly cosy Brooklyn environment.
When Imamu leaves the detention centre where he has been held for a month for robbery with violence, he is flattered to be offered a foster home in Brooklyn by Ann Aimsley, a respectable, socially-minded Black woman with two daughters of her own. Imamu’s arrival is inevitably fraught with emotion and when the eight-year-old Aimsley daughter, Perk, disappears, Imamu is an obvious first suspect. Imamu is deeply hurt but his much-despised street wisdom leads him to a horrifying denouement and the discovery of Perk.
New Guys Around the Block continues the story of Imamu in his role as detective (and a third title is promised), helping to solve a mystery which the police have failed to clear up, whilst at the same time working out a pattern for his own survival. Imamu now lives with his alcoholic mother in a run-down apartment. Most of his friends have become victims of the racist society and of life in the ghetto, forced into drug addiction, theft and violence. It is an intense and powerful novel with a strong political message about the destruction of Black family life through the pressures of the ghetto.
Why did Rosa choose a male central character? ‘I wrote it particularly because boys in the States find it difficult to read. There’s too much television. I questioned myself. How do I get young people to read? I believe profoundly that reading develops the mind. The mind is forced to create images. Wherever that happens, it’s strengthening something there, after a while you cease to be the person you were and you become another person intellectually – it’s active rather than passive learning. I am taking Imamu from the very lowest possible place – almost accused of murder and could have easily been committed for that crime. He had been a drop-out, was going around with the worst people who were mentally unbalanced because of poverty and all those things, and I’ve put him into another setting, opening a little door for him and following him through that door to see him expand to the very end, to see what decisions he will finally make.’
In several of Rosa’s books there is a ‘mentor’ figure, Mrs Aimsley, Mrs Bate. Is this the role Rosa sees herself in, as a writer? ‘Young people need the help of older people. With a bit of help, I want to show they could go a long way. So many bright kids are being wasted.’
Rosa’s most recent book, Paris, Pee Wee and Big Dog, is her first novel for younger readers. It is a fast-moving, compelling story about three young Black boys. Paris and his mother have moved to a new apartment away from their previous slum home. It is Saturday morning and Paris has been told to clean the apartment while his mother is out at work, because his bedroom particularly is beginning to look like a tip. But when his friend Pee Wee calls, with compelling arguments about why they should go out to play and leave the cleaning ‘till later’, Paris succumbs. They are joined by Paris’s cousin, Big Dog, and gradually and very convincingly one dramatic event leads to another and the day passes, until it is much too late to do the housework and his mother is distraught with worry. Rosa catches very effectively the youthful language, humour and relationships of the streets in this very readable story about three likeable and individual characters.
Does Rosa Guy see herself as a political writer? ‘No, basically, I am not – more sociological, socially conscious sort of writing. My hope, my aim, is to raise awareness in people who read. Reading does that anyway but that’s what I want to feel is my contribution – raising awareness of people to things around them, things that are happening because I think that’s important.’
Can you really be non-political when writing as Rosa does so memorably about poverty, squalor, violence, people often in despair, deprived of both love and material things? ‘If you raise the level of awareness of people, it automatically goes into the political, into the need to seek change. You can have all kinds of rhetoric which really has no meaning to you. But if you have awareness, if you basically understand and feel about things, then when you do challenge prevailing concepts, you are in the mental position that you cannot be changed easily.’
Passionately she describes one of the most important influences on her life: ‘The lack of concern for what does destroy, particularly amongst the minority youth, particularly Black kids. Prejudice, lack of concern, translates itself into lack of money for schools, lack of money for well-trained teachers, lack of money for decent housing. Many inner cities in the States have been bombed out since the 1960s, with no programme of rehabilitation or rebuilding. It’s worse now. Houses are bombed out/boarded up. Drugs have taken a terrible toll, have ruined the infrastructure of the cities. It was all of little consequence to law enforcement until it became part of the white drugs scene. Then people cared. All these facts glare at you, it really glares at you: little kids on the block at 12 o’clock at night, 1 o’clock, 2 o’clock in the morning in these bombed-out places. I put it in New Guys Around the Block. It’s traumatic. It really traumatises me. I have to write about it. I call it genocide – it’s a sure way to kill off the people.’
This passionate concern with what she sees around her and the need to transmit a message to young people comes across strongly in all her work, but does it worry her that her books are not taken seriously by the people in power, because they are published as young adult books? ‘I think my books are taken seriously. That’s why there was flack about Ruby. Young people read and things of importance stick. I don’t think my books are easily forgotten.’
Many young people both black and white in Britain today would wholeheartedly endorse that, as they anxiously await her next book and absorb her enduring message.
(published in hardback by Gollancz)
The Friends, 0 575 01839 9, £5.95; Puffin, 0 14 03.0933 0, £1.25
Edith Jackson, 0 575 02607 3, £6.95; Puffin Plus, 0 14 03.1786 4, £1.50
Ruby, 0 575 03052 6, £5.95
The Disappearance, 0 575 02804 1, £6.95; Puffin Plus, 0 14 03.1787 2, £1.50
New Guys Around the Block, 0 575 03271 5, £5.95
Paris, Pee Wee and Big Dog, 0 575 03532 3, £5.95