Alex Wheatle: how my teenage years in care influenced my writing

Author Alex Wheatle will be appearing as a panelist in our Authors Live: Unheard Voices event for secondary schools on Thursday 25 January 2018. It's free and easy to sign up to watch! To help you and your pupils engage with the event, we asked Alex to tell us about his childhood experiences - and how he found the confidence to make his voice heard.

I spent most of my childhood in care and I discovered as far back as my memory begins that I wasn’t a valued member of society. There are so many distressing experiences that I can recall (one day I might write them down in a book!). Here’s one: when I was around seven or eight years old I was denied entrance on many occasions to the confectionary shops located just outside my children’s home village (this was to allow ‘decent members of the public and normal children’ to browse and shop unmolested).

I understand the insecurity, the rage and temptations that run parallel with lack of social mobility, unemployment and poverty.

So even before I hit my teenage years it was made brutally clear to me that society considered me the lowest of the low in the social order.

Most of my teenage years were spent in Brixton, South London, and once again the social order, manifesting itself in racist figures that filled police uniforms, made it obvious to me that I was an undesirable and didn’t even belong within these shores. It affected my self-worth, my aspirations and clouded any talent that I may have possessed. I doubted everything that I was reasonably good at and never imagined that I could one day make a success out of anything. I was vulnerable, ripe and tempted by the criminal world and believed for a while that my fate rested on that path. It has taken me many years to rid myself of that mindset, but today I recognise how crushing those experiences can be on positive life journeys or a positive outlook.

Now, when I create my characters, I reflect on my own experiences I had as a teenager and those friends I had who shared those years with me. I know how it feels when society doesn’t listen, fails to identify your disadvantages and turns its back on you; I understand the insecurity, the rage and temptations that run parallel with lack of social mobility, unemployment and poverty. I have seen the painful effects of young people trying to exist in broken homes and dealing with fractured family relationships. These are issues that have affected me deeply in my life so I try to give those characters voices, and by way of my writing, attempt to make their lives valuable. I’m asking society, in all their manifestations, to take a look and learn empathy and address these live issues.

My teenage experiences fuel my writing. Even though I was a teenager a long time ago, the concerns that I mentioned above are very much relevant today.

Alex Wheatle will be appearing in our Authors Live: Unheard Voices event for secondary schools on Thursday 25 January 2018. To whet your appetite, why not check out some previous events in our Watch on Demand library? You can also read a blog post from panelist Dave Hook about his journey as a Scottish hip hop artist, and one from panelist Ayisha Malik about the experiences of BAME writers within the publishing industry.

Alex Wheatle

Alex Wheatle is the author of Crongton Knightswhich won the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize in 2016. His latest novel Straight Outta Crongton is part of the same series of hard-hitting novels set on the fictional estate of South Crong.