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4Jun

Turning Society On Its Head

Malorie Blackman has over 50 books to her name, a BAFTA award for ‘Pig-Heart Boy,’ and she made the BBC’s Big Read List as one of the Nations best-loved authors in 2003. Noughts & Crosses, her 50th book has now been adapted for the stage by the Royal Shakespeare Company, making her the first Black British woman with that honour.

Malorie_Blackman_Image[1]She speaks with a staunch confidence, has an infectious laughter and the rare ability to capture the imagination of children and young adults alike. Malorie Blackman is a household name with popular television series like the ‘Pig-Heart Boy’ and ‘Whizzywig’ and one of Britain’s most prolific children and young adult writers. Though she always wanted to be an English teacher, life has served its own form of poetic justice. After a working in the IT industry for 9 years, she decided at the age of 28 to give writing a try.

The road to getting published was the least rosy, “It took a long time to get published,” says Blackman. After total of 82 rejection letters, her first book was published in 1990 by Livewire, an imprint of the Women’s Press and she has never looked back. Blackman believes it was her tenacious resolve that kept her going despite the rejection letters from the publishers, “I really wanted to be a writer and I knew I wanted to write stories for children” she adds. She admits to writing books that she would have loved to read as a child and as a teenager hoping that others will read and like them also.  She has since gone on to win numerous book prizes, including ‘The Young Telegraph Book’ and ‘WH Smith Children’s Book’ awards.

When ‘Noughts & Crosses,’ also her 50th book was first published, both critics and her contemporaries praised it effusively. Benjamin Zephaniah described it as ‘Intelligent, emotional and imaginatively wicked.’ It was described ass ‘Dramatic, moving and brave’ and ‘Flawlessly paced’ respectively by the Guardian and The Times. Gaining media plaudits was not all Blackman got for ‘Noughts & Crosses’. The accolades soon followed when she won ‘The Red House Book Award’ and it also featured at number on The Big Read’s list, a survey carried out by the BBC in search of the Nations best-loved books in 2003.

In ‘Noughts & Crosses’, written specifically for young adults, Blackman uses a fictional dystopia to explore the issues of race, love, prejudice and injustice, terrorism and disloyalty from the points of view of the two leading characters, Sephy, a Crosse and Callum, a Nought . She purposely turns society on its head by reversing everything as its known, whereby the Noughts (White race) are the underclass and the Crosses (Black race) are the ruling class. While it was important to keep it simple, “The premise is that the darker you are the better and so it was a very conscious decision to make the White people the minority,” affirms Blackman. However, this was simply to make people see things from a different point of view.

While the RSC has staged the works of other Black British playwrights in the past, Debbie Tucker Green with ‘Trade’ and in March 2008, Roy William’s ‘Days of Significance’ will be showing at the Tricycle theatre. Blackman is the first Black British woman to have her book adapted for the stage by one the world’s best known theatre company.

An avid fan of theatre, Blackman was thrilled when she was first contacted by the Royal Shakespeare Company through her agent. Though she has had other works adapted for television – ‘The Pig Heart Boy’ and ‘Whizywig’ and had previously written a play for the Polka Theatre. She admits having your work adapted for the stage is a different feeling entirely. “I have never had any of my books on stage, so that was a real thrill to think that the RSC wanted to put my book on. It was amazing,” says Blackman.

book jacket 1The original novel has been adapted by Dominic Cooke, the current artistic director of the Royal Court theatre, who vested his interest when he was associate director at the RSC. Cooke says he was drawn to the story after reading 15 pages of the book because of the voice with which Blackman wrote the story, the fact that it was written from the two characters points of view and the subject matter. “It just immediately registered with me and I just thought, wow, it’s got to be done on the stage. We have got to do this.” It is a book which he believes “Tackles so many important stories about the way we live now and its got a big mythic story about growing up, what’s its like to go out into an unfair world, how you deal with that and how it affects you.”

While parallels have been drawn between Noughts & Crosses and Romeo and Juliet, Cooke believes Noughts & Crosses “Does stand on its own because it’s one of those really rare piece of work which is aimed at young people but actually does speak to people of many age.” It is a book which he says has a myth at work that is universal. Though race and ethnicity is very central to what Blackman is writing about, a lot of the story can also be applied to Palestine and what was happening in Northern Ireland, and to all sorts of other situations happening around the world because she is writing something very big.

Interestingly, Blackman has been involved every step of the way in the development of Noughts & Crosses for the stage; from reading drafts of the script to casting, and rehearsal sessions. She has also been able to give feedback on Cooke’s work all the way even up until the preview night. It is a working relationship Cooke describes as a supportive one. “It’s been great, she has been incredibly supportive. She really trusted me to take the essence of what she has done and transform it to a piece of drama”, Cooke says. “She has been very open.”

Though, Blackman was concerned about the themes and subject matter of the text when she was writing, because she felt she was “Raising her head and shoulders above the power pit” but states, “You can’t let that stop you.”

They both hope the stage production will make people think about the issues and questions raised in the play, and from the book and for people to emotionally connect with it. Cooke once again reiterates the themes of the play and why he believes young people will be able to relate to the story. “This book has got pregnancy, terrorism, racism, it’s got a huge number of controversial and difficult subjects in it and I personally think young people talk about these things all the time and are interested in them.”


Note: This article was written in 2007 and first published in The Voice Newspaper

Images

Malorie Blackman: RSC

Book Cover : Amazon

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One Response to “Turning Society On Its Head”

  1. Edyth Balbin says:

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