Society is divided in two. On one side, there’s the privileged, the economically secure who occupy positions of power and go through life without ever being questioned about who they are. On the other side, though, we have the underprivileged, scrabbling to earn a living, fighting to take a step forward while being pushed five steps back.
Which side of the divide you occupy is based upon the colour of your skin. But, in Malorie Blackman’s Crossfire – the latest in the author’s Noughts & Crosses series – it’s black people who make up the privileged class, and white people who struggle. It’s a simple swap on how western society usually works, but one which forces the reader to really consider the prejudice and racism that infuses the world we live in.
Noughts & Crosses, the first book in the series, was published almost 20 years ago in 2001 (a TV adaptation will finally hit our screens in early 2020). The novel served as Blackman’s response to the appalling handling by police of the brutal and racist murder of teenager Stephen Lawrence, who was killed in 1993. His family spent years campaigning for justice; a 1999 report found police guilty of “institutional racism”, and it was only in 2012 that two men were finally convicted of Lawrence’s murder, although more suspects remain unpunished.
It was a conscious change in tone for Blackman, who, at the start of her writing career, actively resisted writing about racism in her children’s books.
“From the time I started writing, I’d always have people saying to me, ‘why aren’t you writing about racism overtly?’” Blackman tells Stylist. “It got on my nerves because, despite being a black author, I can write about other things. And when I started, there was such a dearth of books that featured black children. I basically wanted to write all the books I’d missed as a child – you know, adventures and mysteries and funny stories and fantasies? I was kind of writing for the child in myself.”
Blackman set to work writing a number of bestsellers, including Whizziwig, Thief, and Pig Heart Boy. It wasn’t until she felt she’d penned enough books to avoid being labelled that the author finally found herself ready to tackle the subject of racism… albeit in her own, subersive way.
“I thought, ‘how can I do this and play with people’s assumptions?’ And I thought, how about if I swap it round so that it’s a story where white people are the minority and the status quo isn’t working for them?” she says. “That’s how Noughts & Crosses was born.”
As she began working on Noughts & Crosses, Blackman found herself dealing with not just with her anger over the Lawrence case, but also incidents from her own past.
“It was me having this sense of anger at the deep injustice at the Stephen Lawrence case in particular, and I very much believe if you’re angry, channel it in a constructive way and that was my way of channeling it,” she says. “The book was also inspired by a number of things from my own childhood, things that I thought I had dealt with, to be honest, but had actually just buried. Things like the moment I travelled in a First Class train carriage for the very first time. I was 17, and the ticket inspector accused me of stealing the ticket, and it was kind of traumatic, and I was absolutely mortified.”
“I also remember sitting in a history lesson and saying to my history teacher, ‘how come you never talk about black scientists and inventors and pioneers?’, and she said ‘because there aren’t any’. I thought to myself, ‘that can’t be right’. By not covering those people, the message is ‘well, you only came over in Windrush’. Maybe the message is even that black people have only existed since Windrush in this country.
“All those incidents did make it a painful book to write but it was also a very satisfying and cathartic book to write.”
This idea of using fiction to deal with real-life events is a theme that runs throughout the Noughts & Crosses series, which consists of the novels Knife Edge, Checkmate, Double Cross, and now Blackman’s latest book Crossfire.
Blackman thought she was done with the Noughts & Crosses series after she finished writing Double Cross (in fact, she thought she was done after Knife Edge). However, world events conspired against her, and she found the voice of one of the characters talking to her again.
“Crossfire came about because of a combination of Brexit and Trump and it was watching what was going on, and the politics of fear and division and how it actually seemed to be working for these people,” says Blackman. “Then Tobey [from Double Cross] started whispering in my ear again, but now he was grown up and he was a politician, because that’s where the power is.
“The Noughts & Crosses books always spring up because of what I see happening in current events, and Crossfire is responding to politics and how it’s got so dirty.”
As such, Crossfire tells the stories of multiple generations of Noughts and Crosses. Tobey Durbridge is a politician who is about to become the first Nought Prime Minister when he is charged with murder. Desperately seeking help, he calls on his old friend Callie Rose Hadley, the daughter of original Noughts & Crosses characters Sephy and Callum. Meanwhile, Sephy’s youngest son Troy (a Cross) and Tobias’ daughter Libby (a Nought) are going up against each other in a school election.
It is in this way that, through Crossfire, Blackman is able to explore the corruption that can happen through a pursuit of power, something we’re all too used to seeing in the real world.
“It seemed to me that very few people who start off with high ideals get to the top and still manage to hold onto those ideals, and still remain who they were at the beginning of the process,” says Blackman. “If your goal is to get to the top, then it’s about what you embrace to do that and which parts of society you go after to play to your base.
“It’s this thing of finding one or two things and seeing which way people are going on them, then running in front of them and saying ‘let me lead you’. It’s things like making people mistrust the media so that when they are telling the truth about you, no one will believe them.”
Crossfire might be fiction, but it clearly addresses some of the behaviours and patterns we’re seeing in real life… including the reluctance of society to call out racism when it happens.
“It’s fascinating the language that is used, people really don’t want to use the word that somebody is racist, even when everything they say and do shows who they are,” says Blackman. “I was reading about Trump and the four Congresswomen [the Squad], and he was described as using ‘racially infused’ language, like he was a teabag. I thought ‘why do you not call this man out for what he is?’
“With our own prime minister [Boris Johnson], people like me he’s called ‘piccaninnies with watermelon smiles’ and he’s described Muslims as ‘letterboxes’. And I just think ‘is this the language of a statesperson?’ I don’t think so.”
Blackman continues: “I’m fascinated with this idea of people assuming that once people who have that kind of rhetoric get into power, somehow they’re going to see the light and they’re going to be working for the good of all. Which is nonsense, because what power does is just amplifies who and what they are. This whole thing of politicians and naked ambition, it’s not about doing what’s best for the country, it’s about doing what’s best for them and what serves their ambition. With Crossfire I wanted to address that and talk about that.”
It’s not just among politicians that Blackman examines how race is discussed. The main action of Crossfire is interspersed with newspaper articles about the world of Noughts & Crosses, from pieces about a confirmed residential status ruling (inspired by the Windrush scandal), to a story about a footballer announcing he is quitting the sport because of the racism he receives on a daily basis. There are two which seem particularly poignant in a month where America has already seen two fatal mass shootings by white men (which Trump has blamed wrongly on a crisis in mental health rather than on white supremacism): an article about a Nought terrorist demonises him, while one about a Cross terrorist presents him as a dutiful husband in need of mental health care.
“Some of the newspaper articles might look a bit random, but they’re all there for a reason,” says Blackman. “It’s giving [the world of the book] context. It’s about the way the reporting is handled when it comes to different sections of society. Look at how certain parts of the press report on someone like Meghan Markle and what she does. The barrage of abuse that Meghan is getting… it’s kind of like she’s damned with certain parts of the media, no matter what she does.
“It reminds me of the abuse that Princess Diana got, the way the press hounded her. I watch what’s going on with Meghan and I think ‘this is along the same lines, but worse’. Meghan could wear a one-shouldered dress, two-shouldered, a boat neck or whatever, and the media would say it’s not appropriate, because what they are saying basically is that she shouldn’t be in the royal family.”
Crossfire is packed full of astute observations about society and about the way people operate, but at its core it’s primarily a good story, one that entertains while making you think.
“My hope is that Crossfire starts up some discussions and debates,” says Blackman.
That, we have to say, is guaranteed.
Crossfire by Malorie Blackman (£7.99) is now available to buy online and in stores.
Images: Penguin Random House/Paul Akinrinlola/Getty