BfK readers who caught the closing minutes of ITV Evening News on June 23rd will have already heard some young adults talking about Blackout. A diverse group of students at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School, Islington, had read the book and then enjoyed a Zoom-style conversation with two of the six authors of this unusual – maybe unique – novel. The book has attracted media attention for the story behind its creation as well as its subject matter. The authors, led in this project by Dhonielle Clayton, are successful Black American women writers of YA fiction. Their inspiration, says Ms Clayton, came early on in the pandemic when ‘we all felt we were in a metaphorical Blackout, fumbling around in the dark… when death and uncertainty swirled around me.’ As she made clear in the TV clip, that period included the murder of George Floyd and the response of BLM.
The novel is dedicated ‘To Black kids everywhere: your stories, your joy, your love, and your lives matter. You are a light in the dark’. A power outage (not during a pandemic) plunges New York City into Blackout for several hours of a hot and steamy evening. People are scared, lost, angry. Each author tells a love story about teenagers – maybe a dozen young people in total. Their lives are loosely but seamlessly interlinked through brief appearances in each others’ stories. No doubt, the writers’ email trails, agreeing details of plots, characterisation and so on, would be fertile ground for future PhD Sherlocks. Tiffany D. Jackson’s ‘The Long Walk’ gives structure to the whole through 5 ‘Acts’, set between the other authors’ narratives. Jackson’s story reflects a sustained conversation between Tammi and her ex, Kareem, thrown together by chance on this extraordinary evening, four months after they had broken up. For them Blackout brings illumination and renewal as they make their way across the city to a party in Brooklyn where Kareem is scheduled to deejay.
Each of the remaining authors tells a separate love story in a single chapter, though all of their protagonists end up at that party. There’s diversity here: some characters began life in Jamaica or Haiti, while others have lived all their lives in Harlem; students on a school trip from Mississippi, nervously overseen by a young teacher (one of the very few White characters), peer into the dark with strangers’ eyes from a tour bus which happens to be driven by Tammi’s kindly father. There are several elements from YA fiction UK readers will recognise: the big-party-as-plot-climax, for example, the frequent exclamations of ‘Whoa!’ in the dialogue and even the mention of fashionable footwear (invariably Converse or Jordans in the American YA world). Much of the NYC teenage idiom, however, will be far less familiar, even impenetrable. There is variety in the plots, from one about the daughter of two dads to another in which the elderly residents of a retirement home mischievously engineer a meeting between two girls they think might well be attracted to each other. There is diversity in the relationships too – gay male, gay female, hetero. They range from tentative first encounters to long-standing partnerships where misunderstandings are now in need of repair. All the stories are finally optimistic; the future looks as bright as the evening was dark.
It’s difficult to distinguish the different ‘writing voices’ and I’m uncertain whether the unusual genesis of the novel will make any significant difference to the reading experience; but there was no doubting the searching questions and enjoyment of those students in Islington, especially their pleasure in finding stories about ‘people who are similar to me’.