Fen Coles interviews Patrice Lawrence about her new book Eight Pieces of Silva.
2019 was something of a writing quilt for Patrice Lawrence. Her work encompassed historical MG fiction, Diver’s Daughter: A Tudor Story; comedic reluctant reader, Toad Attack; a YA World Book Day short story, Snap!; a chapter offering a star turn to the ‘underhog’ in Return to Wonderland; a short story in New Class at Malory Towers. On her mercurial ability to skip between genres, Patrice merely says, ‘Being published in my 40s meant I had plenty of time to experiment; I’ve never seen myself as a particular type of writer’. But this refusal to be typecast also suits her passionate desire ‘to give children of colour, whatever their age, stories in which they can find themselves’. Putting a black girl in to Malory Towers shouldn’t, but does, feel like something of a revolutionary turn given how our English national story has been expressed within children’s literature (as BfK’s Beyond the Secret Garden column exposes so brilliantly).
Notwithstanding this genre hopscotching, Patrice does have a preference for ‘a good mystery’. And, this August saw the publication of the latest in her YA thriller canon, Eight Pieces of Silva. Covid-era restrictions meant that the Gays the Word launch had to migrate online, something which didn’t appear to phase Patrice at all. She says she loves these new ‘hybrid launches’ and the way they allow people to drop in from anywhere. It was a huge success with 80+ people attending, Patrice sporting the perfect Skunk Anansie tshirt and an energetic Q&A with writer Leah Cowan (formerly of gal-dem).
Eight Pieces of Silva is a blisteringly fast paced mystery, rich with noir-ish elements. There is the cityscape with a personality all of its own (Patrice’s London is always a fleshy character), unreliable and equivocating secondary characters, snappy and taut dialogue and, where Silva’s voice comes through, an almost stifling bleakness and melancholy.
This author really knows her crime. The morning I spoke to her, she had just been enjoying an Argentinean true crime podcast. While writing Silva, she listened to works by Mike Carey, Jim Butcher and Tad Williams. ‘I really love the thriller tropes but blimey it needs some female voices!’ Patrice’s interruption of noir’s machismo extends in Silva to a flipped, male, femme fatale. But, most refreshingly of all, the classic male detective voiceover has been shunted off, giving way to the confident tones of a 16-year-old, working class, lesbian of colour, Becks.
The mystery at the heart of the novel is the disappearance of Becks’ older sister, Silva. Unravelling that becomes an exploration of Silva’s grief (her mum dies when she is just 13) and subsequent journey into a destructive relationship with Homme Fatale, Logan. ‘The problem with grief’, says Patrice, ‘is you sometimes don’t know where to put it.’ Patrice was keen to make Logan ‘manipulative’ rather than ‘coercive’, to build a nuanced and complex relationship which hovers on the edges of toxicity. The resulting portrayal shakes with intensity.
Whilst the mystery of Silva motivates the plot, however, it is Becks’ voice which dominates. Becks is a young lesbian who absolutely owns her sexuality. She is beyond coming out. From her Year 7 girl crush to the present day, Becks wouldn’t recognise a closet if it slammed its doors on her: ‘Mum always says, I didn’t come out to her because I could never be in’. That she is also a young woman of colour means that she is a very rare breed indeed as far as UK YA literature goes- and she is certainly the first in a novel by an author of colour. Was Patrice aware of this ‘first’? ‘To be honest’, she replies, ‘it’s so rare to have people of colour written by people of colour full stop’. At the same time, she says she had been asked on more than one school visit about whether she would be creating a queer character.
Patrice compares the ways in which ‘whiteness’ is normalised and goes unscrutinised in culture with the work of ‘straightness.’ And, she remained hyper-alert to this hetero-centricitiy as she constructed Becks. It is this energetic self-reflection and sensitivity which has led directly to the wonderful nuances of her protagonist’s lesbian sexuality. Like all of Patrice’s novels, Silva is layered up with a vast and delicious range of pop culture references – Black Panther, K-Pop, Tolkien. And so, she simply tilted these to suit Beck’s tastes. A Tolkien fan, Becks has Arwen (or rather Liv Tyler), not Aragon, on her mind; while she and Silva synch their moves to boyband BTS, Becks ‘always preferred the girls in Red Velvet’. There is also a good smattering of ‘insider’ lesbian culture cues: the ironic nod to Perry’s ‘I Kissed A Girl’, a fleeting Nicola Adams poster, dollops of Janelle Monaé, Spacegirl Pukes-themed curtains and Beck’s own sardonic, queer-stamped, comments: ‘I almost did wear a dress to crumble them gay girl stereotypes.’ ‘Glinda was a straight as Hawkeye’s arrow’.
Importantly, Becks is also seen as part of a wider queer community. Patrice says, ‘I didn’t want Becks to be a lonely lesbian.’ Becks can simply ‘be who she is’ amongst her friendship group, a portrayal drawn from her daughter’s own ‘queer brown friendship group’ at sixth form.
A final, hugely significant, authenticating detail to Becks’s sexuality: she expresses and experiences desire. So often romantic same-sex female relationships are reduced to somewhat sanitised portrayals: whimsical, handholding (only), wistful friendships. Patrice has written beautifully about the churning, engulfing desires within straight teen relationships in her previous books (Indigo and Bailey in Indigo Donut comes immediately to mind) and she hasn’t hesitated to carry that passion over in to Becks’ and China’s tentative first steps towards each other: ‘She strokes my back. I almost unbrace and fall into her.’ It is a real delight to see an author offering young women such a healthy, confident and joyous depiction of sexuality.
Patrice says she hopes that things are a little easier for young black women now in terms of coming out and she is also looking forward to a future where there will be more own voices narratives with black lesbian children’s authors taking their place at the table.
So, what next? Patrice is looking forward to the next round of judging for the Little Rebels Award for Radical Children’s Fiction. Now in her 3rd year as a judge, Patrice says she loves the role. ‘I still think books can potentially change the world’, she says and seeing social justice issues tackled in the youngest of picture books is something which she says, ‘just makes me happy!’
And then there are her writing plans which include two adult projects: a non-fiction account of ‘the other’ Windrush generation (see her superb PEN Transmissions’ essay Black Deaths Matter: About My Father) and a 1930s thriller inspired by some early, pre-Orangeboy research into Hoxton Hall and Haggerston and starring a mixed race amateur detective. Patrice moved to St Leonards in lockdown. Originally from Brighton, she is enjoying being back by the sea. Sometimes she’s joined on her seaside walks by nearby neighbour, author Catherine Johnson. I suggest that Catherine, with her TV script background, might provide the perfect serialisation for her adult noir. ‘Yes! Absolutely!’ exclaimed Patrice. Move over Andrew Davies, Jimmy McGovern…
Fen Coles is co-director Letterbox Library