A Conversation with Peter Akinti, Author of Forest Gate
1. You were born in London but lived briefly in Nigeria before settling in Brooklyn. Describe how the various places in which you have lived helped you write this book. Was living in London your primary influence? Why did you decide to set Forest Gate primarily in London instead of Somalia?
Living in London was definitely the primary influence of writing this book. I moved to Nigeria because I was fed up complaining about London then to Brooklyn after complaining about Nigeria. I am thankful that I did. I used to say, once you're an east Londoner you just can't live anywhere else. I thought it was part of the fabric of who I am. By traveling, I was lifted into new worlds, where I began to think, see and feel differently, extending the boundaries of my mind and eventually my writing, Looking at parallel lives of inventive young people who are practically the same yet divided by money, ethnicity and class.
2. You mention several African-American writers such as James Baldwin, Langston Hughes and Richard Wright throughout Forest Gate. Are these writers your influences? What is your background and how did you decide to become a writer?
These writers mean a great deal to me. Ultimately, and this is difficult to explain, they gave me the courage to honestly depict what I felt rather than portray what might please a specific audience or what might be financially rewarding. I am heavily influenced by all proletarian fiction, that which springs out of the direct experience of the working class. I grew up longing to be a journalist. I have spent an awfully long time scribbling words in notebooks, even before I realized what I was doing. I signed up for a writing course once. My classmates went silent, just sort of looked at me sideways when I took my turn to read something out. I never went back but I knew I was on to something.
3. Why did you decide to write this story? Describe the journey from conception to publication.
I had just had my first manuscript turned down by every major publisher in the western world. I was feeling pretty low, unsure what to do with myself. I met with an old friend for a drink who told me his brother had died by suicide. He was just a kid; his death shook me up a bit. I couldn’t get his image of him standing at the edge of a tower block, a project, out of my mind. I asked myself the question: what he was thinking? And I was shocked when I realized I knew.
4. Were any of the characters based on people you have known in your life? On people from history? On yourself?
Lots of black men are dying in London at the moment. We have started to believe lazy journalists who say these deaths are all to do with drugs and gangs formed in inner cities. This is just not true. James is based on a few people I have known and some who are fictional accounts of people who make the news. Of course James is also part of me, a part of the group of young men who are dying spiritually; James is also the nephew of James Baldwin whom the letter ‘my dungeon shook’ was addressed to. Poor James. The character Armeina is based on a Somali woman I met in Paris who was making a film about female circumcision.
5. Who is your favorite character and why?
My favorite character is Mohamed, James and Meina’s father, a quiet and formidable presence in the book. A man who loved his family and his country, a brave and principled man murdered for strong political beliefs.
6. Your novel depicts a part of slum life that we don’t often see in popular culture; that is, those who are victimized by their circumstance, such as James. Was it important to you to present an alternative point of view?
I didn’t set out to depict this or that. I wanted to be included in the political dialogue that seemed to be taking place in London about people like me without people like me.
7. Why did you decide to tell the story from various narrators’ points of view? What effect do you think the structure has on the story overall? Why was Meina chosen as your primary narrator?
Honestly, I thought people would tire of the black male voice, also it sounded very much like me, Peter. I would often find myself writing passages and working myself up more and more drifting further and further away from my plot. In the end I asked myself: What could I say about growing isolation, meaninglessness and moral decay from a black male perspective that hadn’t been said already. I tried using the voice of a black woman and, oddly enough it worked for me. I was able to detach, concentrate more on the creative process.
8. Describe the research that went into the making of this novel. Was it a lot or a little? Would you say this book is more from personal experience or from history and current events?
I remember reading about Faisal Wangita, son of the late Idi Amin, who got five years for killing Mahir Osman, an 18-year-old Somali boy in London. Then a 17-year-old boy was convicted at the Old Bailey of murdering Kiyan Prince in London last May. He stabbed him through the heart several times. Hannad Hasan, a 16-year-old Somali immigrant, claimed the stabbing was an accident. I remember he said the knife he used was "a little toy". I found hundreds of stories that highlighted how some young men from war torn countries are fuelling the violence in Britain. Ignorant journalists were blaming ‘black men’ despite the huge differences in our make up – we may look, dress and even talk the same but culturally, we are very different. I got fascinated with Somalia (their civil war has been ongoing for eighteen years. It is one of the only countries in the world that is officially ungovernable). I studied the Somali immigrants who were arriving in the East Midlands then moving to London and being housed mainly in the inner city estates, just like Forest Gate. (Academic studies estimate there are now 100,000 Somali’s in Britain. Officially the figure is 20,000). The story just grew from there.
9. Do you hope to break any stereotypes with this novel?
I don’t know if my little book can break stereotypes, especially in London where the divide is difficult to overcome. Hopefully it will be included in the ongoing debate.
10. Who are you reading now? Who is your favorite author? What is next for you as a writer?
My favorite author is a Nigerian author named Daniel Fagunwa. I read him at a very young age; he made a great impression on me. I am working on another novel. I have finished with the creative work; now I’m doing the editing. The book is set in east London. It has Yoruba mythology at its core.